Pixar are renowned for making spectacular animated pictures for all the family, but why is their latest release Coco – a film that centres around the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos – so good, and is it really the best Pixar movie ever seen?

Directed by Lee Unkrich, Coco follows 12 year old Miguel who aspires to be a musician just like his idol, local celebrity Ernesto de la Cruz. But when you come from a family that has banned music for generations, what do you do? On Dia de los Muertos, Miguel flees his home to try and take part in the town’s talent show, but when he finds himself having a curse put upon him for stealing a guitar to perform with, he is transported into the world of the dead. With his deceased ancestors beside him and his new friend Hector, Miguel must find a way to return to the land of the living and prove his talents to the world, while also grappling with choosing to follow his dreams or to respect his family.

In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Lee Unkrich shared that when he came up with the idea for the movie in 2010, he was startled to realise that there were almost no movies whatsoever that set themselves against the backdrop of the famous Mexican celebration (since then, Blue Sky released The Book of Life, another children’s animated movie set against The Day of the Dead, but the two are completely different.) As a result, the foundation of this movie really does feel very original and fresh and it’s delightful to see the studio celebrate the culture of the holiday in such a loud and open way. The depiction of the festival is so beloved in fact that Coco is already the highest-grossing movie of all Mexican box office history, a true success for the people behind the movie.

But while this movie is good without me even needing to tell you why it’s good, what is it that makes this film the best of its kind?

All Pixar movies manage to reduce everyone to tears by the end of them, but over the years, this method seems to have become increasingly divisive, driving the audience to tears for the sake of it and cheating them into an emotional ending. It’s the kind of thing that you can suss out if you remove the emotional moment from the equation and the movie still works. For example, in the end of Toy Story 3 when the toys are slowly edging towards the incinerator and their certain death, does the movie work without that scene? Yes it does, so the scene feels manufactured and like a shortcut to an emotional response. In Coco though, there is none of that to be seen. While there are several moments where characters almost die, the real emotional value in this film’s ending is a happy one, the emotional response of crying creeping up on you almost entirely unexpectedly from a happy place within. It’s when Miguel is reunited with his family at the end of the film, hand in hand with Mama Coco, that the tears really begin to fall.

It was also nice to see Pixar finally hit the nail on the head with a family storyline. In previous family-centric movies like The Good Dinosaur, while the moral at the end of the story has been achieved, it doesn’t have quite the same resonance as it does at the end of Coco. In this film, the emotional payoff of Miguel learning to appreciate his family and that he can have both his dreams and the love of his parents is one that is earned. Perhaps this is because Miguel is surrounded by such a vast and varied family from beginning to end in this film that it feels like the moral of the story has been at play the whole time, or perhaps it’s because family as a theme seems to tie into every single aspect of this film, but whatever the reason may be, it works and it works well.

On a similar wavelength to that, I think Coco is a story that literally anyone can relate to, despite that the fact that it is so heavily steeped in Mexican culture. If I had to compare it to any other movie this award’s season, it would have to be Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, another film that has left me questioning the importance of my relationships ever since I saw it. Coco made me seriously evaluate the ties I have with members of my family and how the love you receive from your family is one that transcends everything else on Earth, no matter how weird or messed up your family may be. For that reason, the film managed to take the notion of “family comes first” in a completely transcendent way: just because family comes first, it doesn’t mean that it gets in the way of other things. By the end of the film, Miguel has managed to find a way to balance both his dreams of becoming a musician and the love that he has for his family – he didn’t have to choose one over the other after all.

Another reason this film appealed to me so much was perhaps because of the sophisticated way that it deals with art and culture, something that previous Pixar films haven’t even come close to trying to deal with and a subject matter that is incredibly intellectual for a child-targeted family movie. Coco manages to show that art (in this case, music) can bring out many different sides to a person and inspire emotions in people as well: happiness and sadness, love and hate, passion in a good way and passion in a bad way. When Ernesto de la Cruz is revealed as being a murderer for the sake of his art, we see his passion for the artform in a different way to Miguel’s passion when it came to stealing the guitar. Both of those acts are criminal offences so are inherently negative, but the light being shone on them shows the different ways we drive towards our goals as artists and it was incredibly sophisticated to see.

Finally, like many other Pixar movies, Coco is challenged with the task of some extreme worldbuilding, something that’s endlessly impressive in a movie that already has the task of painting an authentic suburban Mexican backdrop to start with. While Pixar has built incredibly fascinating and detailed worlds in films like Monsters Inc. and Inside Out, this movie manages to do it once again, but in a way that made me immediately want to run around inside of there and explore it for myself. In a way, the land of the dead in this movie was as much a character as Miguel was, with the same being said about Mexico’s presence in the film. It was very detailed and incredibly nuanced, something I appreciated greatly.

I’ve already seen this film twice in the cinema (both times in the first week of release) and writing this review for you now has got me itching to go back and watch it again. I haven’t felt the way I feel about this movie since the early films from the studio that they released in my childhood and it’s got me very excited indeed. Don’t walk, run to see this movie. Pixar is back on their A-game and we were all here to witness it.

★★★★★

Disney Pixar’s COCO is in cinemas nationwide now.