Coco is not be the most surprising or poignant film Pixar has ever made, falling for the allure of offering any lesson rather than The Lesson, but it makes up for it with a lot of visual panache and heartfelt humor. Laid atop the colorful world of the dead, we are treated to plenty of exciting goofs and conflicts that, while skewing a bit close to predictable, lead to a taut story that feels like the tender, smothering hug you’ve always wanted.
The setup is an immediately intriguing one: Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) comes from a long line of shoemakers that seem to have a fatal allergy to music of any kind. This stems from his great-great grandmother Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) being abandoned by her wannabe musician husband, leaving her to raise Mamá Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) all by her lonesome. This hasn’t been a problem for the rest of the Rivera clan, but unfortunately, Miguel’s idol just happens to be Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).
Ernesto is the most famous musician in all of Mexico even long after his untimely death, so you can see how that wouldn’t mesh. In a desire to prove his dreams valid, though, via a music contest on Día de Muertos, Miguel ends up attempting to steal Ernesto’s iconic guitar from his opulent tomb. But from the moment he strums those holy strings, Miguel finds himself trapped in the actual Land of the Dead and unable to interact with the living.
The first thing you’ll notice even before entering this realm of walking and chattering skeletons is that this is a gorgeous movie. Obviously the most technically robust work that Pixar has ever done, this film is a tremendous blend of photorealistic rendering and fantastical design. It often feels like a Laika feature where cartoonish models are moved across detailed maquetes.
And once you get into the Land of the Dead, it’s like the finish line of every color run that’s ever been run smashed together. It’s colorful and appropriately ethereal, skirting the line between grave and macabre as skeletons walk through a cloud of blissful existential dread. If you ever played Guacamelee (or really anything from DrinkBox Studios), you’ll understand how perfectly the ancestral Mexican aesthetic permeates every single bit of the art.
All that bubbly, inviting design is a nice distraction, too, from the otherwise grim narrative. The Land of the Dead is pretty much an endless party for the dearly departed. Hang out with your lost beloved, but only so long as someone among the living remembers you. Easily one of the darkest scenes of any Pixar film occurs about halfway through Coco as this narrative mechanic is exposed, and it’s shocking on a fundamental level.
This is the base of the introduction of Héctor (Gael García Bernal), a down-on-his-luck skeleton who hitches his wagon to Miguel. In exchange for introducing him to Ernesto, Miguel will take Héctor’s photo to place upon an ofrenda so he can cross into the Land of the Living before the end of the holiday. His existence is a fun one, sure, what with all the song and dance and bone-related shenanigans, but he’s also a spectre of what is to come for all of us: a second death when we slip from the history and hearts of those that remain.
It’s a concept that serves as the main story hook but also the great moral underpinning: memories are worth keeping, no matter how sad or angry or empty they make you feel. It’s somewhat akin to the message imbued in Inside Out, but severely less focused. Rather than the revelation of that being a profound notion presented throughout the climax of a character’s journey, it’s more of a broad lesson that just shows up.
That’s a shame because not only did Inside Out prove that you can talk about the deep and foundational impact of pain alongside happiness in a meaningful and entertaining way but also because it ends up feeling a bit ineffectual in the end. It feels like a prepackaged lesson that comes with every children’s movie rather than the trademark insight that Pixar has crafted its legacy upon.
It certainly doesn’t help that a great deal of the movie is predictable. The finer details may end up on the jolting end of the surprise spectrum, but the big moves are beyond giant neon sign-levels of obvious. Between the quest to meet your hero, a romance ripped apart long ago, and the rebellion of an outsider within a group of insiders, it’s nearly impossible to not guess how those threads get resolved.
For many movies that are crafted this well with such delectably joyous characterizations and catchy tunes and adrenaline-basted set pieces, this wouldn’t be a problem. But Pixar films carry with them a certain amount of expectations. They trade in originality and surprise both in the narrative and in the presentation of a mature and complex theme that plays to both children and adults alike. And that’s mostly missing here.
But it really can’t be overstated how well made this movie is. Its stakes and motives are clearly established in organic and charming ways, turning heroes and villains alike into likable and intriguing characters. And it’s not insignificant that the deeply culturally entrenched groundwork is both playful and respectful (though let’s not forget that trademark debacle). Coco is a triumph, even if it’s not as big of one as you’d hope.
Final Score: 9 out of 10