Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
There have been highly anticipated films before in Pixar’s history, but there probably hasn’t been a more high-profile animated feature than COCO. Throughout its years-long gestation, it’s found itself in both a just and unjust lightning storm of controversy. However, once all that fervor died down, what remained is the final product – and boy howdy is it an enrapturing experience. Brimming with life, rich cultural heritage, dazzling color, beautiful music, and incomparable animation, the team led by director Lee Unkrich and co-director Adrian Molina gift us with a celebratory affair that’s bound to strike the right chord.
All Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) wants to do is sing and play music. All his parents want him to do is carry on their family tradition of shoemaking. They’ve banished all music from their household for decades, dating all the way back to great-great-grandma Mama Coco’s (voiced by Ana Ofelia Murguía) childhood. He’s had to keep his passion and talent hidden from sight. Until now when the village talent show presents itself as his debut venue of choice. The trouble is the show falls on Dia de Muertos and Miguel’s unsupportive family forbids him to participate. Following the example of his musical idol Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), our young hero takes his future into his own hands, venturing out on his own. Only problems arise on the road to adventure – pitfalls like being sent into the Land of the Dead to unravel the mystery behind his ancestral ban. It’s up to Miguel and his underworld hustler guide Héctor (voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal), who is seeking familial closure of his own, to find answers and return the boy to the land of the living.
Screenwriters Molina and Matthew Aldrich, who work from a story they wrote with Unkrich and Jason Katz, have carved an impassioned, indelible and moving tribute to the Mexican culture and their resplendent musical identity. Of course there’s a multitude of universalities that cross over into the mainstream (it even teaches the audience about the loving sentiments and traditions behind Dia de Muertos), but it’s the specificities that are most impactful. While the narrative does take a few cues from BACK TO THE FUTURE (like Marty’s photo of disappearing family members being comparable to Miguel changing into a skeleton as the clock ticks), and you might be far ahead of the reveals, the emotional impact is never lessened. In grand Pixar-ian fashion, you will cry by film’s end – maybe even a few times. Sniffles abound specifically in the dénouement. There’s a fun spin on the traditional “boy and his dog” tale utilized here as a C story. Despite the short amount of time spent with tertiary character Chicharrón (voiced by Edward James Olmos), his scene resonates based purely on the shorthand of the dialogue.
Naturally, from an aesthetic standpoint, the animators have outdone themselves. At first glance, the Land of the Dead bears some similarity to THE BOOK OF LIFE’s fantastic world. That said, this is folklore both films fete and there’s bound to be overlap. Though the narrative hoops the filmmakers jump through can be a smidge over-complicated (and it breaks one of its own rules), the world-building is expansive and immersive. You might want to hit the non-existent pause button to breathe in the majesty of these landscapes.
Perhaps the most genuinely affecting part of COCO is the legacy it leaves. It will be immeasurable. An unexpected kick of emotion comes after you’ve processed the ins and outs of the material, when you think about the impact this will have on generations to come – especially in our socio-political climate that’s teaching children to be fearful of other races, cultures and creeds. It stands defiantly as an antithesis to what many sad excuses for leaders are preaching. It’s a celebration of diversity in the face of adversity – and you can’t help but be moved by its transformative power.
COCO is now playing.