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Film Review: “Coco” Mixes Disney and Pixar in a Mostly Delightful Mix

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 22nd, 2017

Film poster: “Coco”

Coco (Lee Unkrich/Adrian Molina, 2017) 3 out of 4 stars.

If, like me, you have an allergic reaction to maudlin sentimentality, be forewarned: Coco may raise your hackles at first. Wait it out, and you will find that there is magic in the movie. Inspired by the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead (November 2, or All Souls’ Day), when one’s deceased .@chrisreedfilmrelatives come back from beyond the grave to visit their living descendants, Disney/Pixar’s new animated confection rises above its initial set-up to deliver laughter and tears in equal measure. It still has a little too much Disney (so often mawkish) to be always perfect, but enough Pixar to be mostly wondrous.

Young Miguel is our narrator and protagonist. In an opening sequence, we learn the history of his family. Five generations ago, his great-great-grandmother Mama Imelda’s husband abandoned her with a daughter, Coco, to pursue a career in music. Heartbroken and disgusted, Imelda banned all music from the family and started a shoe business. She is now gone, but the business still thrives. Coco is now herself at death’s door, though adored by Miguel. He can tell her all his dreams, including that of becoming – <gasp> – a musician, because she won’t remember them, anyway. Things threaten to come to a head this year on the Day of the Dead, when Miguel plans to enter a music contest in the town square. When his grandmother – Coco’s daughter – discovers his handmade guitar and destroys it, he runs to the only place where he knows of a good, free replacement: the grave of his idol, the late, great Mexican musical star of stage and screen, Ernesto de la Cruz.

Miguel and Dante @Disney/Pixar

But . . . you shouldn’t steal from the dead, especially not on the day of their festival. Soon, Miguel finds himself plunged into their realm, where he has until the sun comes up to make it back home, lest he be turned into a walking skeleton, himself. Should be easy, except that he doesn’t want to leave until he meets de la Cruz, who is as big a star in the afterlife as he was in our world. And so begins a series of delightful adventures, beautifully animated, in which Miguel, trailed by his faithful Mexican hairless dog Dante (yes, I know), races deeper into the underworld, further threatening his chances of return. All the while, his Mama Imelda follows in hot pursuit, disgusted that a descendant of hers loves music.

The story manages to be complicated and simple, both. It’s a standard enough formula of a child learning to choose his/her own path, yet the details feel new and exciting (though there was a film a few years ago with a similar aesthetic and narrative, The Book of Life, which I never saw). The voice talent includes Gael García Bernal (Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle), Benjamin Bratt (The Infiltrator), Alanna Ubach (Bravo!’s Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce) and Renee Victor (A Night in Old Mexico). Much to my surprise, given my initial reaction to the story, I found myself crying at the end. Imagine what might happen to you, dear reader, who surely must be less of a curmudgeon than am I.

Ernesto de la Cruz @Disney/Pixar

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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