US (2017) Dirs. Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina

Every year at the Oscars it is inevitable that either a Pixar or Disney film is going to win Best Animated Film regardless of whether it deserves it or not. In lieu of egregiously overlooking anime and other foreign language animated films, the 2018 winner Coco just might be a worthy winner after all (though I’ve not seen the other entries).

Set in Mexico, 12 year-old Miguel idolises the country’s most popular music star, Ernesto de la Cruz. However, music is outlawed in his family due to Ernesto abandoning his great-great-grandmother Imelda and their four-year-old daughter Coco to pursue his musical career, so Miguel has had to keep his musical aspirations to himself.

When encouraged to enter a talent contest at the annual Día de Muertos festival, Miguel is caught sneaking out leading to an argument with his family, during which his grandmother destroys his homemade guitar. Miguel runs off to the festival but needs a new guitar so he breaks into the museum for Ernesto and takes the one on display.

But strumming the guitar magically transports Miguel to the Land of the Dead where he meets his dead relatives for the first time, now in skeleton form. To return to the Land of the Living Miguel needs the blessing of his family but when Imelda will only do so on the proviso he gives up music, a truculent Miguel decides to look for Ernesto and get his blessing instead.

Coco was originally conceived back in 2010 after the completion and release of the Lee Unkrich directed Toy Story 3 with an American child learning about his Mexican heritage in the wake of his mother’s death. This parochial idea was abandoned for one directly relative to Mexico instead.  

Día de Muertos is a festival to honour the memories of departed families in which shrines called ofrendas are set up with photos of the missed loved ones. In the diegesis of Coco, the spirits of the dead get the chance to return to home for one night only to see their loved ones as long as they are remembered and have a photo on display.

In keeping with the traditional decor the festival, the dead are in skeletal form – fully clothed – with exaggerated skulls. Considering the theme of the film is death this lighten the mood so younger viewers won’t find it so maudlin and hopefully the comical aspect will allay are fear they may have of seeing sentient skeletons.

The other aspect that also makes the idea of death less morbid and fearful is how the afterlife is a colourful and vivid world of mystique and wonder, like a giant theme park. Unkrich has admitted to taking inspiration from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away for the designs and idea of his spiritual domain.

Miguel isn’t dead but strumming the guitar belonging to the late Ernesto somehow transported him to the land of the dead. However, Miguel has to return home before sunrise otherwise he will become a skeleton himself, but getting his stubborn family to rescind their hatred of music is proving impossible, so it is off to find his great-great-grandfather Ernesto, also a legend in the afterlife.

We are now in firm adventure territory as Miguel has to navigate his way across this weird world without being recognised, his only companion a clumsy street dog he named Dante, who shows up as Miguel’s spirit guide. Luckily Miguel meets Héctor (voiced by Gael García Bernal, the only cast member I’ve heard of), a shifty chap trying to cross the bridge to the living world to see his daughter one last time.

Because his photo isn’t on an ofrenda, Héctor is denied entry to the bridge, so he agrees to help Miguel in exchange for him taking his photo back to the living world. Héctor has a few surprises up his sleeve which helps the pair bond but his biggest surprise is one that truly upsets the apple cart and changing the complexion of Miguel’s journey.

Family films tend to preach on the importance of family and Coco is no exception. Yes, it is a little didactic in sharing this message but the primary audience it is aimed requires an unsubtle narrative. For the adults, the cherishing of memories is our life lesson, with a surreptitious subtext about recognising when there is a square peg unable to fit in the hole you’ve dug for them and try communicating with them instead of suppressing them.

It is also expected that some kind of emotional resolution awaits us at the climax and in taking its cue from the opening of another Pixar film Up, we indeed are hit with one of those tightly wound, pivotal moments that is genuinely moving, and not manipulative, especially being so long overdue within the context of the story being told. It’s born out of a hokey premise but it works because of its heart behind it.

Also making this scene so effective is the animation, which sees Pixar take another leap forward in reaching the goal of acutely duplicating naturalistic movements. There are still signs of cartoony weightlessness in faster moving comedy sequences, but one vast area of improvement is in the texture of the human appearance. Hair is more realistic than ever and the wrinkly skin of the elderly Coco is uncannily accurate.      

The designs of both worlds are impressively on a visual scale for their attention to detail as well as being incredibly immersive. We know instantly that we are in Mexico without the need of clichés like men wearing huge sombreros or sporting thick moustaches, whilst the Land of the Dead is suffused with magical whimsy and inventive twists on South American architecture.

With Pixar’s style becoming a synonym for CGI animated films rather than a standard-bearer, Coco adheres to the studio’s safe template but retains the deft ability to charm and entertain without resorting to cheap sentimentality. Their best film since Inside Out.