Coco review: To the other side and back

  • Coco (2018)

The Riviera family holds a grudge against music that spans generations. Since the head of the family left his wife and their little girl to fulfil his dream years ago, nobody could speak about music again. Instead, they dedicated themselves to growing their family business which became renowned for shoemaking. Miguel feels that it isn’t his destiny: he itches to express himself through music, just like a famous, Elvis-like singer Ernesto, coming from his town.

coco review

When he accidentally knocks down the picture of his great-great-grandmother on the Day of the Dead, he discovers a personal connection to the legendary musician. In the heat of the moment, he steals a guitar from his mausoleum to enrol in a local talent show. Transported into the ancestors’ land by a curse, he can only make it back with a family member’s blessing. However, he rejects the one from his great-great-grandmother as it comes with a condition: the boy mustn’t play music again. Disheartened, he decides to find Ernesto, convinced that he’s the only relative to understand his passion. In an attempt to get to his idol, he strikes a deal with goofy trickster Hector. The spirit promises to take the boy to the singer if he helps him to return to the other side.

It’s difficult enough for grown-ups to talk about death and grief. Losing your loved ones never gets easier to explain and understand, whether you’re a child in need of clarification, a teenager striving for answers, or a grown-up broken by the news of losing someone who was dear to you. With its immense humanity, Coco speaks about loss in its many forms, grief, forgiveness, memories, and our relationships to things created by people we admire. It’s tackled with respect and understanding, but it also delivers an overpowering load of emotion.

Notably, the presentation of the themes reutilised by Pixar over and over isn’t hidden in the story layers. This time, it steps into the darkness more than any other animation from the renowned studio; it’s a reason and a background for the story development rather than a consequence. That inevitably can make us weep as we follow Miguel on his adventure in the land of the dead.

The movie makes use of the strangest, albeit effective, similes. Death is an extension of a lifelong journey, all about travelling to the other side. The entrance to the land of the dead resembles an airport, with identity scans that direct you to places where people miss you. When there’s no one to put up a picture in your memory or spare you a thought, you fade into oblivion. It eventually happens to everyone, but it’s more painful when you don’t get to return to your living family even once after you die. The ancestors, portrayed as skeletons with face paint referring to the Day of the Dead traditions, have the same quirks that distinguished them in the land of the living. They miss their families and become overjoyed when they’re able to see them grow and change. Purely observing the mechanics of this world is likely to make you cry, and it takes up a significant chunk of the film. Because these moments are loaded with so many universal observations and beliefs, they become much more than details in the background of the story.

However, there’s much more to the Disney/Pixar’s newest project. Miguel learns a lot while immersing himself in this new world. These adventures are voiced by a fantastic cast, notably by a newcomer Anthony Gonzalez, as well as Gael García Bernal (Neruda, Amores Perros) who successfully tries voice acting for the first time. The use of Spanish accents, words and phrases embraces the cultural background the film springs from, too. Using the language, the movie throws in tiny details about the identity. That additionally highlights the protagonist’s search for acceptance springing from his uncertain roots. And finally, the film isn’t afraid to examine humans as creators who leave things of significance behind no matter who they are, and ponder on their impact once they’re gone from the material world.

The film’s atmosphere capitalises on the depiction of vibrant Mexican culture beyond words. Coco carries the spectator into the beautifully animated land of customs, colourful creatures and legends that we watch with our eyes wide open. Without overexplaining them to the audience, the animation finds the perfect balance; it winks at a knowing observer and hints details to somebody who knows a little about the Central American country. Whether your knowledge limits to appreciating a subtle nod at Frida Kahlo or understanding of Día De Los Muertos celebrations, it knows how to make the story accessible.

Using the themes familiar for the studio, but leaning into the darker territories than usual, Coco arrives with thoughtful lessons on death, legacy and connection to others. Dressed up in the colourful animation and rich references to Mexican culture, it’s a considerate yet thorough (to an extent you can attempt it – can you ever be thorough when it comes to the unknown?) tribute to the memories people leave behind that will surely push all the right buttons if you allow it to.

Coco opens in the UK on the 19th of January 2018.

Kasia Kwasniewska

Editor in Chief

Passionate about far too many things. Loves reading, watching films, eyeing (and producing) good design, listening to music and stuffing her face with chocolate on a daily basis. Cooks from time to time, and drinks far too much coffee to be a normal human being. Liked my work? Buy me a coffee!

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