Skeleton crew: the animation in Pixar’s latest offering, Coco, is scrupulous and ravishing

The family-friendly movie has become the highest-grossing film of all time in Mexico.

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Not since Beetlejuice has the afterlife looked as lively as it does in Coco, a computer-animated Pixar adventure set in the fictional Mexican town of Santa Cecilia during the Día de los Muertos celebrations. Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old with a solitary dimple and eyes almost as big as his ears, is a guitar prodigy who has the misfortune to belong to a family that has outlawed music. His great-great-great grandfather walked out to become a balladeer – he left behind a daughter, Coco, who is these days a wrinkled and senile old woman – and now the merest whistled ditty is enough to send the boy’s grandmother into a rage. She attacks a mariachi singer with her sandal, spinning it in her hand like a gunslinger and slipping it back on her foot.

Desperate to be as successful as his idol, the late Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), Miguel breaks into the crooner’s mausoleum to borrow his legendary guitar, and finds himself transported to the land of the dead – a thriving place where the population live in glowing boxes stacked like building blocks in the distant violet mist. His skeletal relatives, their clacking skulls daubed with festive make-up, flock around him. “Remind me how I know you?” he says, peering up like any child confronted with interchangeable aunts and uncles at a family do.

In trying to make it home, Miguel teams up with Héctor (Gael García Bernal), a ducker-and-diver who wants also to reach the corporeal world. Trouble is that Héctor has been forgotten by his mortal relatives. Like the hereafter in A Matter of Life and Death, the one in Coco is big on bureaucracy: if the scanner at immigration control can’t find a match for your face in the land of the living, you’re not coming through.

The film has a galloping rhythm, and the animation is scrupulous and ravishing, from its smallest details (the sodden texture of Miguel’s wet hoody, the knobbly knuckles beneath Coco’s liver-spotted skin) to its limitless landscapes. The lava-like bridge between the living and the dead is especially breathtaking, made entirely of marigold petals, fiery orange on top but revealing a dazzling yellow underside when ruffled.

This is all very spectacular but it is in the struggle to locate Héctor’s rightful place in history that the film finds its emotional force. Stock Pixar ingredients, such as the tension between familial obligation and individuality (as seen in the Toy Story series), are given a new resonance in the context of a story celebrating this under-represented  and vilified nation. (It has become the highest-grossing film of all time in Mexico.) The picture builds to a simple, devastating scene in which Miguel uses music’s restorative properties on Coco, like drops of water administered to a parched mouth. It’s only right the film should be so concerned with the power of remembering when Pixar itself has got the longevity game down pat.

In revisiting a period in recent American history when press freedom was under threat from a lunatic in the White House, Steven Spielberg’s The Post certainly has topicality on its side. Other pluses include a feel for the old-fashioned beat and bustle of daredevil print journalism, and a greater array of early-1970s chiffon and wing collars than could be found anywhere this side of Oxfam. Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post, who watches aghast as the New York Times blows the lid off the Pentagon Papers. These prove, among other things, that the US government knew as far back as 1965 that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. “Is anyone tired of reading the news instead of reporting it?” he asks, presiding over an office that comes to a standstill when the Times arrives.

He gets his shot at glory once Nixon thwarts that paper’s attempts to run more extracts. Post reporters step into the breach, sifting through 4,000 unnumbered documents in eight hours. As the paper’s jittery publisher, Katharine Graham, Meryl Streep is at her most mannered: hands all a-flutter, twirling this way and that as though practising dance routines for the forthcoming Mamma Mia! sequel. But Graham’s business wrangles are neatly interlaced with Bradlee’s political and journalistic ones by the writers Josh Singer and Elizabeth Hannah. The film wrings a fair amount of tension and nostalgia from what is essentially a string of meetings in smoky rooms, though it stints on analysis and ends with a limp punchline worthy of Radio 4’s political comedy graveyard The Now Show

Coco (PG)
dirs: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
The Post (12A)
dir: Steven Spielberg

On the NS culture podcast this week, Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman are joined by film critic Ryan Gilbey to discuss the new Pixar film Coco. Then they analyse Jack Thorne's new drama Kiri and celebrate the noniversary of Alexandra Burke's "Hallelujah".

Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 18 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history