Before we get into the movie itself, it’s worth mentioning that this is the third animated movie released by Disney with heavy Mexican themes. Of course this is the only actual movie of the three. The other two being part of Disney’s partnership with the state department to try to improve relations with Mexico during the Second World War. You could go so far as to call them propaganda. I mentioned them way back in my Disney Animated Movies post on the WW2 years. Right away I expected this to be far better than the other two. The fact that it’s received very good reviews and made $732 million on an estimated $200m budget (although the numbers aren’t entirely clear just yet) didn’t hurt. But with some of the recent Pixar movies not being as good as usual, I was still a touch worried.
The concept of the film is based on the Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead. It also happened to release in Mexico the weekend before Dia de Muertos (day of the dead), releasing almost a month later in the rest of the world. Director Lee Unkrich, who previously directed Toy Story 3 and co-directed Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo, first came up with the idea in 2010. He initially planned the movie about an American child learning about his Mexican heritage, while dealing with the death of his mother. As much as that sounds like it could be a decent story, the production team decided it was the wrong direction for a Pixar movie. They instead decided to focus on a Mexican child.
Unrick noted that the original version “reflected the fact that none of us at the time were from Mexico.” Because the film depicted a real culture, it caused Unrick anxiety. He wanted to make sure they did it right. The team made several trips to Mexico to help define the characters and the story. The more they learned about the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday, the more it affected Unrick on a deep level.
The animation team found working with the skeleton characters in the movie difficult. They lacked muscular structures and needed to be animated differently than humans or it just wouldn’t look right. As part of the art direction, they also took inspiration from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, with a touch of the action movie, John Wick. And it worked, because this movie looks beautiful from a visual point of view. I actually picked this up on 4k Blu-Ray, and it was completely wroth it (I’ve owned a 4K TV and a 4k Blu-ray player for a few months now, but this is the first time I’ve actually watched a full movie in 4k).
As for the movie itself, it stars Miguel, a 12-year-old boy who’s very passionate about music. Her family very strongly disapproves though, since his great-great-grandfather left his then 3-year-old great-grandmother to pursue a career in music, never to return. So Miguel often sneaks out to meet other musicians, or practices in secret. His great-grandmother Coco, now 99, is old and starting to forget things.
After Miguel’s family catches him practicing and destroys his guitar, he runs away and tries to steal his great-great grandfather’s guitar. Accused of stealing from the dead, he somehow ends up in the land of the dead. If he doesn’t get a blessing from a family member to return to the land of the living, he’ll die and stay there forever. And the only family he’s met so far are only willing to give him a conditional blessing – one that forbids him from ever playing music again.
I got to say, this is a really good movie. The plot is fairly straight forward, focusing more on the characters and the mythology instead. The mythology behind the land of the dead is fascinating, and the animation behind it is colourful, creative and technically impressive. As someone who used to play guitar (until both a busier life and my dry skin problems got in the way), I feel Miguel’s passion for music. And showing a character’s passion for something instead of merely talking about it is a fantastic way to make a character likeable.
There are a number of other characters likeable in their own ways, like how as much as Miguel’s family (both living and dead) don’t want him to pursue music, they still clearly care about him. And Miguel cares about them too, despite how they frustrate him. The plot twists aren’t all that unexpected, but they serve to deepen the relationships Miguel builds during his journey in the land of the dead.
Anthony Gonzalez, himself a 12-year-old boy at the time of recording, does a good job at portraying Miguel. You can feel his passion and frustration in his voice and tone. Benjamin Bratt, an experienced actor in both live action and voice acting, portrays Ernesto de la Cruz, the most famous musician in history in Mexico (in-universe), and Miguel’s idol. And of course Gael Garcia Bernal, Mexican actor and director, portrays Hector brilliantly. Hector is a charming trickster who helps Miguel during his journey, with the catch that he needs to take Hector’s picture with him so that someone will remember him.
As I mentioned earlier, this movie made more than $700 million. That’s despite how it released in a crowded market, preceded by Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League and another animated movie, The Star. Weeks later, Star Wars: The Last Jedi also released, followed by Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Pitch Perfect 3 and The Greatest Showman. That’s not bad at all considering its competition. It also happened to be the second Pixar movie released in 2017 year, Cars 3 being the first. Coco received critical acclaim, with a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 8.2/10. It’s nominated for 13 Annie Awards, two Academy Awards, the BAFTA award for best animated film and numerous others. It’s already won four awards at the Visual Effects Society, and the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature Film, among others.
And this movie deserves its praise. I can’t comment on how respectful Coco is to Mexican culture as I know virtually nothing about it, but it did very well there. Less than a month after release, it became the highest grossing film in the history of the Mexican market, as well as the fastest 10-day earner for any animated film in the territory. It earned a total of the equivalent of $41 million US there. So it can’t be that bad from a cultural standpoint. I would highly recommend this one to anyone who finds the concept interesting.
The 20th Pixar movie, The Incredibles 2, releases this June. I’ll wait until then before I post my favourite Pixar movies list since 20 is a nice round number. My next blogathon will be Star Wars, and I won’t just be looking at the episodic titles and Rogue One. No, I’ll be looking at any Star Wars movie with a theatrical release, which also means the Clone Wars movie). I’ll also look at the Star Wars Holiday Special (which I’m dreading), the two Ewok TV movies and perhaps a couple others you haven’t heard of. However many Star Wars movies I look at, the posts will be in order of release. My goal is to finish that blogathon right around the time The Last Jedi releases on Blu-Ray and DVD.