A visual treat with heart

The story: Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old Mexican boy dreaming of becoming a musician like his late idol Ernesto de la Cruz. But music is banned in his household because his great-great-grandfather had left his family to pursue those dreams. Then, Miguel unexpectedly finds himself crossing over to the Land of the Dead during the Day of the Dead festival, where he meets charming, troubled trickster Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), comes face to face with Ernesto (Benjamin Bratt) and learns the truth about the skeleton in his family's closet.

There was another animated movie recently made about the Day of the Dead, The Book Of Life (2014). Coming in second for a similarly themed project is usually not ideal given that audiences might not have the appetite for more than one such film. Then again, Pixar does have a strong track record in animation works in general.

And indeed, they deliver once again with Coco, with director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3, 2010) at the helm.

The film is a visually gorgeous tapestry of Mexican culture and it fills the screen with the colourful vibrancy of Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) as people honour the memory of the departed with visits to cemeteries and gather for music, food and drink while bright orange marigold blooms carpet the ground.

The loving attention to detail impresses. There is the use of paper cut-outs to effectively convey a brief backstory involving Miguel's great-great-grandfather and the latter's daughter, Coco, and the wondrously imagined Land of the Dead, complete with fantastical spirit guides and the depiction of skeletal figures in a way that makes them come alive as characters.

The voice work by the all-Latino cast is spot-on as well, never overshadowing the roles, but instead, fleshing them out and disappearing into them. Gonzalez's Miguel is realistically torn between following his dreams and listening to his family, Bratt brings a smooth swagger to Ernesto and Garcia Bernal is by turns likeable and pitiful.

It would be all too easy to use Dia de Muertos as a somewhat exotic backdrop but - as far as it is possible for me to tell - there is a ring of authenticity to the proceedings as cultural traditions such as the construction of ofrendas, a collection of objects placed on a ritual altar, are faithfully depicted. Indeed, ofrendas are turned into a key detail in the story, thus weaving them seamlessly into the film.

  • REVIEW / ANIMATION

  • COCO (PG)
    105 minutes/Opens tomorrow/4 Stars

While The Book Of Life was hampered by an unsatisfactory storyline, Coco is full of heart and it glows with a cosy familial warmth.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2017, with the headline 'A visual treat with heart'. Print Edition | Subscribe