It has sadly been a while since Pixar’s noughties winning streak of instant classic releases – their last five or six years have produced a mixed résumé, and even some of the recent hits have been exaggerated by popular acclaim. Coco is another of these relative successes; it puts most family films to shame with a visually arresting modern tale, but ultimately leans on convention in the process.
Coco‘s young Mexican protagonist Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is a budding musician, in a family that has vowed themselves to silence on the melodic front after the betrayal of a scurrilous ancestor. On Dia de los Muertos, as his family remember and honour their predecessors, he indulges in his passion for music, and accidentally slips into the land of the dead, to butt up against the family history he is so reluctant to embrace.
As he attempts to return to the living, and to reconcile his passion for music with the opprobrium of his family, Miguel and a cast of supporting skeletons explore a vibrant underworld, laden with cable-cars, fiestas and the still-remembered dead. Gael García Bernal plays the lanky Héctor, an affable rogue whose desire to be remembered intersects with Miguel’s need to leave. Coco‘s plotting is predictable from this starting-point, and while its pacing is reliable (Pixar are no amateurs) this conformity is disappointing.
The land of the dead is a beautiful backdrop to the action, however, all blazing fireworks and chameleonic spirit animals, and the source of a near-bottomless well of skeleton-related visual gags. From literally jaw-dropping surprises to allergies sustained into death, Pixar’s characteristic playfulness is often best expressed in the back of frame and in quieter moments.
In point of fact, the most memorable supporting character by a distance is one without a spoken line. Dante, a local hairless dog Miguel has befriended, follows him into the spirit world, and his animators conjure a wonder of drooping, drooling fun. He stumbles through scenes, calamitously arriving at the perfect second, and delighting his audience. Like Paddington 2‘s superb window-washing montage, Dante is an example of how to do slapstick right, and a demonstration of humour’s age-bridging qualities.
Expectedly, Coco delivers salutary lessons about trust, family and the importance of culture, but beyond these relatively staid morals its cultural depth is wonderful to behold. That a mainstream film should be set in a hispanic cultural sphere, without tawdry explanations or references to more traditionally dominant tropes from America or elsewhere, has the feeling of a statement from Pixar. As one of the gatekeepers of children’s entertainment, it is reassuring to see that they take their responsibilities seriously.
It’s hard to avoid feeling pity for the parent of a modern child, whose cinema-going existence must so often stoop to experiences like the inane noise-and-colour vomit of Minions or the defiantly lazy Emoji Movie. If Paddington 2 – now Rotten Tomatoes top-reviewed film of all time – represents an example of the family film’s peak, Coco certainly speeds past basecamp. It is a colourful and diverse exploration of heritage and culture, and if not a soaring masterpiece is a certain winner for the cinema-savvy parent.