Tackling a subject like death in a children’s film is a tough balancing act. You can’t be too light or else risk seeming disingenuous. Too serious however and the film can become a morbid mess. Pixar has done a good job of straddling that line in films such as “Toy Story 2” and “Up” and they continue that streak with “Coco.” Their success lies in finding the silver lining in finite life: joy in family and experience over despair and anguish.
Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, “Coco” tells the story of Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy kept from playing music by an old family superstition. When he is accidentally transported to the land of the dead on Dia de los Muertos, he must find his great-great-grandfather and gain his blessing to return before he becomes a spirit as well. He recruits Hector (voice of Gael Garcia Bernal), a bumbling castaway, to aid him in his quest.
The film is a beautifully told, if ultimately somewhat familiar, tale. The land of the dead may be one of the most impressive animated environments ever created, full of bright colors, depth and brilliant hues. The imagination behind the construction of the dead characters and the spirit creatures is superb. The film plays out like an old fable told from generation to generation, timeless as it confronts childhood acceptance, manifest destiny and the concept of eternal familial love.
The music is respectable, if not exactly memorable, but it’s the emotions they represent that imbue them with cinematic power. When Miguel sings, it’s a reflection of his desire to live, an oxymoron considering he’s in the land of the dead.
A weak point however is the film’s second act twist. Pixar has always done a good job of building up their films with complex characters and themes only sometimes to feature stereotypical hollow villains. In “Up”, there is Charles Muntz. In “Brave”, there’s Mor’du. In “Wall-E”, there’s Otto. They do sometimes make a complicated antagonist such as Ego in “Ratatouille” or Lotso in “Toy Story 3”, but the twist in “Coco”, and the villain that permeates through the final act of the film, diminishes an otherwise strong story with a higher degree of schmaltz than is necessary.
But “Coco” is an otherwise solid film, fun and ultimately joyous with plenty to love and remember.