Seize your moment.
Both figuratively and literally, Coco is Pixar’s most human film. The movie delivers a compelling story centered around memorable characters that feel alive — even as they’re taking a journey through the Land of the Dead. The animation is top-notch as well, which adds to Coco’s effectiveness in telling its story.
The central conflict in Coco revolves around aspiring musician Miguel (newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) gaining new insights about his family’s history and their relationship to music. Miguel’s hometown has a rich musical history, but his family views music as a curse. Instead of singing songs and playing instruments, Miguel must put all of his energy into the family shoe business, which he despises. Miguel’s search for musical independence away from his family is deeply engaging.
Throughout his adventure, Miguel must come to grips with the knowledge that what he thinks he knows about his ancestors may be inaccurate. The pains of growing up and learning harsh truths are powerful obstacles for Miguel to confront in the Land of the Dead. Miguel’s quest is about so much more than music. The theme of family and its importance is integral to Coco’s story, and whenever Miguel loses site of its significance, things go horribly wrong.
Gonzalez is incredible as Miguel, displaying a wide range of skills for an actor so young. He manipulates his voice in multiple ways to convey sadness or joy, and it speaks to his transformative abilities as an entertainer. An example of this can be found when Miguel is playing his guitar and singing along with his favorite musician, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). As he sings, the longing in his voice for a life outside the confines of his hometown is palpable. His emotions come through with each note that he belts out. There’s not a single moment where his performance falters.
Miguel’s companion through most of his journey in the Land of the Dead is Hector, played by the talented Gael Garcia Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle). Like Gonzalez, Bernal is fantastic, as he deftly creates Coco’s most complex character. He’s equal parts charm and insecurity, but to delve deeper into why the character is so rich would be to invite spoilers. The Mexican actor gives a weight and distinction to Hector’s voice that makes him seem wiser than his years. For someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience in voice-over work, Bernal distinguishes himself here.
The directors made an interesting and successful creative decision to include the prevalent use of Spanish language without including subtitles. It’s used in just the right way, so the viewer won’t feel lost in the moment, and with enough context clues for the audience to understand what is happening even if they don’t know what is actually being said. It’s one of many effective ways that the filmmakers embrace and celebrate the movie’s Mexican roots.
As fine as many of the voice actors are, none of this gorgeous tale would work so well if not for its stellar animation. Disney Animation and Pixar keep one-upping each other year after year: Disney’s Moana was dazzling, but Pixar’s Coco kicks it up several notches with character models that look almost too real. The way the orange glow of the candles at a cemetery casts shadows over the faces of people visiting their loved ones is simply exquisite. Every frame — from Miguel’s hometown to the Land of the Dead — is brilliantly realized. The fact that you can see every wrinkle that outlines Mama Coco’s face in particular highlights the level of depth the animators are able to create. It’s scary at times how good Coco looks.