An early scene in Pixar’s latest coming-of-age offering, Coco, sets the stage for an epic Mexican adventure that’s all thrills and also, all heart — 12-year-old Miguel Rivera, in his makeshift hideout, watches his music idol Ernesto de la Cruz on the TV, as he practices de la Cruz’s songs on his contraband guitar.
While a lot of exposition previously goes into explaining Miguel’s predicament, this moment, laced with gullible wonder and an overall tenderness, drives home the film’s central question — can personal ambitions and commitment to one’s family coexist?
Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) wants to be a great musician. He’s never performed onstage, but he knows he has it in him. Why? Because his great-great-grandfather was a musician, too. But he has to hide his musical ambitions from the rest of his large, joint family, because his abuelita (grandmother) has strictly forbidden music in the household, owing to the fact that the aforementioned great-great-grandfather abandoned his family to pursue that very dream that Miguel now cherishes — of sharing his music with the world. The Riveras, now accomplished shoemakers, will have nothing to do with music.
The rest of the story follows Miguel as he finds himself in the world of the dead on Dia de los Muertos (Mexican remembrance festival — Day of the Dead), along with his slightly loony, sidekick dog Dante, and he must convince his dead relatives to help him in his quest to bring music back in the family, while he tries to return to the land of the living.
There’s a lot more information to take in, and new characters get added on with every passing moment, but it’s all held up by breathtaking and dazzling visuals, the likes of which you’ve never seen before, and a soundtrack brimming with various Mexican genres of music — from mariachi tunes to Ranchera and modern Mexican electronic music. Remember Me, a soulful original track about love and separation, will stay with you long after you’ve left the theatre.
Credit goes to the people at Pixar for not whitewashing the effort, and featuring a cast that’s entirely Latino, including actors Gael Garcia Bernal (Hector), Benjamin Bratt (de la Cruz), Alanna Ubach (Mama Imelda) and Ana Ofelia Murgui (Mama Coco).
And the film is filled with Mexican cultural references and folklore, while taking great care in bringing to life the spirit and the emotions related to Dia de los Muertos. From the magical marigold bridge that connects the living world from the dead to the psychedelic-coloured, flying alebrijes (mythical spirit guide animals) and the Ofrendas (ritual altar remembering the dead), there’s a conscious effort to talk about death, loss and grief in a manner that is both simple and evocative. Expect the waterworks early on.
And to lighten things up, the likes of Frida Kahlo and famed Mexican wrestler Santo also make short but memorable appearances.
After a steady stream of underwhelming sequels over the last couple of years, it looks like Pixar is ready to get back on track, and emerge stronger than ever. If you do one thing this weekend treat your heart, soul and eyes to Coco. You won’t regret it.