I cannot overemphasize how badly 2017 needed “Coco.” After 2016 saw no fewer than four animated films end up on my year-end Top 10 list, this year has been one of the worst in recent memory for animation. I barely have anything nice to say about “The Boss Baby,” “Despicable Me 3,” “The Lego Batman Movie,” or “Smurfs: The Lost Village.” Critics treated “The Emoji Movie” like a sign of the apocalypse and “Leap!” was even shoddier. Even Pixar, usually the shining example of consistent greatness, had a relative misfire with “Cars 3.” But not to worry, Pixar wasn’t content to let that cash-grab sequel be their sole offering this year. Enter “Coco,” a spectacle that’s worthy of the studio’s talents and should have no trouble winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) loves music even though his family is strongly opposed to it. His great-great-grandfather walked out on his wife and daughter Coco to pursue a music career, and since then music has been strictly forbidden in the family. But Miguel has a burning passion for the art form, idolizing a singer from the 1940’s named Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Looking at an old family photo, Miguel spots de la Cruz’s signature guitar and deduces that he must be his long-lost relative. He’s got music in his blood, even if it skipped three generations. Against the orders of his family, who want him to be at home honoring late relatives on the Day of the Dead, Miguel runs off to enter a talent show. He runs into a problem when he needs a guitar and there isn’t one handy. De la Cruz was buried with his guitar, and his mausoleum is nearby, so Miguel figures it’s his birthright. Upon his act of grave robbery, Miguel finds himself whisked away to the Land of the Dead.
The Land of the Dead is a beautiful place, and Miguel is glad to learn that his dead relatives are happy there, but he needs to get back to the Land of the Living by sunrise or he’ll be stuck there permanently as a skeleton. His great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alana Ubach) can send him back with a single blessing, but will only do so on the condition that he stay away from music forever. Miguel isn’t going to take that deal, so he sets out to get a blessing from de la Cruz. He teams up with a shady character named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) who claims to be an old friend of the singer, though that might just be something he says to get out of police custody after trying to sneak into the Land of the Living without a proper memorial in the form of a plate on his family’s ofrenda. Adventure, bonding, fallouts, reconciliations, twists, and music ensue. It’s actually a very tight, involving story, but I can’t go much further without hitting some spoilers.
I believe this film features the largest family of any Disney movie ever, with five generations spread over two planes of existence. The film is at its strongest when it’s exploring the dynamic among family members. Inter-family conflict is so present onscreen that you won’t even notice how long the film goes without a proper villain. And yet the film never lets you forget that this is a loving family and everybody just wants what’s best for everybody else. It’s touching stuff.
“Coco” is a delightful movie, another triumph from Pixar. The gags are funny (skeleton characters = guilt-free dismemberments!), but as always, the key to the film is its heartfelt moments. If the Academy wants to give an unprecedented Oscar nomination to a voiceover performance, Gael Garcia Bernal would be an excellent choice. Ironically the film is lacking in its music; it keeps pushing a song called “Remember Me” that isn’t nearly as catchy as the movie thinks it is. But overall the movie is terrific. With less than six weeks left to lose its lead, “Coco” is currently the best family movie of 2017.
“Coco” is rated PG for thematic elements. Its running time is 109 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.