Pixar movies always look good, but Coco is in a class by itself. Ablaze with eye-popping color, every widescreen frame is filled with richly detailed settings and appealing characters. Any concerns about overlap or redundancy with Jorge Gutierrez’s impressive The Book of Life (which also dealt with Day of the Dead) should be put aside. Coco has its own story to tell, which it does with gusto and great respect for the culture it depicts.

The movie opens with a mariachi band playing “When You Wish Upon a Star” over the Latinized Disney logo. How can you not smile in response? Scenes continue on that high note (pun intended), using traditional Mexican paper cut-outs to provide the exposition we need to engage in the story. Next we meet our vivacious, wide-eyed hero Miguel, who thrives on the one thing his entire family is forbidden from partaking in: music. He has to find a way to follow his passion without disrespecting (and alienating) his family. When a talent show coincides with Dia de los Muertos, he’s forced to choose between following his dreams and honoring his deceased loved ones.

It takes great effort to create a storyline as clear-cut as this. Director and co-writer Lee Unkrich devoted six years to Coco, determined to “get it right.” He builds a world we’ve never seen before and fills it with colorful and compelling characters. We can’t help but root for Miguel as he embarks on his odyssey. And somehow, the eeriness of imagery associated with Day of the Dead is disarmed by ingenious production design and clever gags. The movie isn’t about death: it’s about celebrating life and connecting with our heritage.

Unkrich and his collaborators consulted a variety of cultural experts and lived with several families to soak up atmosphere and inspiration. Michael Giacchino worked with Mexican composers and musicians to create an authentic score. Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alfonso Arau, and newcomer Anthony Gonzales (doing a terrific job as Miguel) breathe life into each of their characters beautifully.

This is Pixar at its best. Coco has broken box-office records in Mexico, where it has enjoyed a rapturous response. It now remains for Americans and others around the world to discover its colorful magic.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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April 2024