OnScreen Review: 'Coco'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

It’s difficult to manage to make it to the movie theater to see a big theatrical release and go in blind, having avoided the trailers and commercials for the film that often give away so much of the plot. And yet, somehow, I managed to mostly accomplish this with Pixar’s latest film, Coco. Previews give us an idea of what to expect, a nibble of what the movie will be in order to rope us in. Too often, though, they give away far too much about the film. In my ideal world, I could avoid trailers and the Rotten Tomatoes score of every single film before I see them, but I lack the discipline to follow through on that most of the time. In this rare instance, though, it worked to my benefit and the film’s benefit, really. I knew that the film was about a kid, a guitar, and the Mexican holiday of the Day of the Dead, when families remember their ancestors.

The boy is Miguel Rivera (voice by Anthony Gonzalez), a 12 year-old who comes from a family of shoemakers who hate music. This dates back to Miguel’s great-great-grandmother who was married to a man who left her and their daughter to be a famous musician and started the family shoe business to provide for her daughter. Ever since then, the family has not allowed music. Miguel secretly loves music and hopes to be a famous musician someday, like the local, revered singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).


The guitar is the famous guitar of de la Cruz that hangs in the mausoleum of de la Cruz in the local cemetery. Somehow, Miguel playing this guitar causes him to cross over into a spirit realm inhabited by ancestors that have passed on, including his own. This brings him into contact eventually with his great-great-grandmother, Mama Imelda Rivera (Alanna Ubach), who tries to send him back to the land of the living, but Miguel rebuffs her assistance because it comes with the condition that he never plays music again. Fleeing his family, Miguel enlists the aid of Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) in getting to de la Cruz, someone who Miguel believes he has a connection with. Unfortunately, de la Cruz is more famous in death than life, and getting to him proves to be challenging.

The Day of the Dead is the entry point for all kinds of fantastical elements into the story. It’s a little fuzzy how exactly Miguel ends up in the spirit world, but it involves a curse; of what kind, I’m not certain. But he has to get back by the end of the Day of the Dead or he becomes a permanent resident. This reminded me of Back to the Future a bit, where Marty has the family picture where things are slowly fading and disappearing and his hand starts to fade away during the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. Here, Miguel’s skin is becoming more and more translucent, looking increasingly like a skeleton version of himself, like all the others in this land of the dead.

Pixar has created a spirit world that takes much of its form from the customs and practices from the Day of the Dead. Food and flowers are left at the graves of loved ones. The inhabitants of this vibrantly colorful city of the dead are only allowed to cross over and retrieve the gifts left for them by their families if they are displayed in a family’s ofrenda, a collection of pictures and objects featuring the deceased. The petals from the flowers create a bridge for the inhabitants of this spirit city to journey to be with their living families, gather their gifts, and return.


It’s a cleverly designed world. A person like Hector is unable to cross over because no one displays his picture. And it explains why de la Cruz is so rich and famous because fans flock to his grave and leave gifts in his honor. All of this emphasizes the importance of family and the remembering loved ones and honoring them. When the memory of someone is forgotten among the living, their spirit ceases to exist and moves on to “somewhere else.”

Pixar has often been a studio that is known for telling stories that have emotional heft, and Coco is no different. I loved how the integrated so much of the Day of the Dead and the family tradition into the story. It’s a perfect illustration of how loved ones live on in our memories. By the end of the film, I found myself thinking of my grandparents (my mom’s parents), both of whom passed away in the last few years, and even my Nana (Dad’s mom), who passed away nearly 20 years ago; before I knew it, I was fighting back tears unexpectedly. Luckily, it was a Sunday night and I don’t think the other people in the theater, just a dad and his daughter, caught on that I was “quiet crying” just a few rows in front of them.

For some reason, Coco was a film that was slightly off my radar when I went to see it. Maybe it was because I didn’t expect the “full Pixar” experience in a November release. I guess I expected something like The Good Dinosaur or something. To say I was unprepared was an understatement. Coco is a highly enjoyable, fun family film, something that has surprisingly been in a good supply this fall at the box office. The visuals of the land of the dead are eye-popping and the story will pull at your heartstrings. And there are even a few good songs thrown in for good measure.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars