First things first: One should not take one’s daughter to this movie on a daddy-daughter date without mentally preparing oneself for Pixar’s penchant to deliver devastating emotional gut punches. Otherwise that same hypothetical person should also be prepared to give an explanation for why her daddy is a blubbering mess. Speaking entirely hypothetically and not from experience of course. Of course if you’ve covered yourself on both of those counts then you should have no hesitation catching this movie with your loved ones as Coco sees Pixar return to its extremely lofty heights.
Coco tells the story of Miguel Rivera, a young boy born into a family of shoemakers but longing to be a musician. This is a problem in his family since his great-grandmother Imelda became a shoemaker because her husband left her to pursue a musical career. As a result music and musicians are taboo, and Miguel’s dreams are similarly crushed. On the Day of the Dead celebrations Miguel discovers that his great-grandfather may in fact be legendary musician and lifelong idol Ernesto de la Cruz. This discovery sends him on a quest to the Land of the Dead to find his great-grandfather, uncover family secrets, and claim his destiny as a musician.
Pixar has made themselves the preeminent animation studio of the 21st century by telling original stories in highly imaginative worlds. Nonetheless Coco represents a new frontier for them in that for the first time they are portraying an actual non-Western culture, centred around a non-Western festival of a non-White people. Needless to say, there were many ways that this American studio could get this wrong. But fortunately for us the viewers, Coco succeeds because it is such a faithful reflection of Mexican culture, and Dia de los Muertos in particular, that it breathes new life into what may seem to be a conventional story at surface level of coming-of-age and self-discovery. Here lessons about family and legacy are divorced from typical Western individualistic hues and instead steeped in Mexican culture in such a creative and authentic way that its messages and resonance is universal.
It helps that the movie is so absolutely gorgeous to look at. It has become cliche to praise Pixar for raising the standard of animation but that does not make it any less true. While Miguel’s village gets high marks for its stunning realism, it is the Land of the Dead that is the true standout world of this movie. The moment went Miguel first discovers the Land of the Dead is a breathtaking moment for the sheer scale of this multicoloured world. Yet what is most astonishing is that this world is filled with stunning breathed-in detail in every nook and cranny that Miguel travels in. This detail is of course Pixar’s forte but unlike in movies past Coco feels different because the detailed and expansive visuals help soak us in a different and real culture. For the first time since perhaps Ratatouille, the movie feels like its taking us to a real place.
The movie also represents a new venture for Pixar in that it is arguably its first full musical. And here the attention to detail to Mexican culture pays off dividends as the songs and music do so much to immerse you into the movie’s fully realized world. But besides that, the songs also represent the core of the movie as they refreshingly don’t act as plot exposition devices but function as emotional anchors to the boisterous proceedings. Paired with the aforementioned stunning visuals of the movie, the end result is a movie that is an effortless joy to venture through.
Of course while Pixar’s original story and stunning attention to immersive detail create a very good animated feature, it is the warmth at the heart of this story that elevates the movie to becoming one of Pixar’s best. The movie’s plot lends itself to creating easily villainized characters in the various members of the family (both living and dead) who stand in the way of Miguel’s goal of becoming a musician. Yet the filmmakers frequently take time and effort to steer away from that lazy characterization to show time and time again that the motivating and binding force that has kept this family together is the genuine love they have for one another, even if that love causes obstacles and complications. And it is because of this unflinching commitment to showing the mess and beauty of family that this film’s emotional gut-punch works so amazingly well.
If there is one minor complaint in this movie it is that the movie feels the need to shoehorn a traditional villain plot into the third act which detracts from the rich and warm story that Lee Unkrich has built up so far. Without giving any details away, suffice it to say that the climax of the story involves a last dash rally to save Miguel and save the day. And while it is well executed (if not terribly original) the great sin of this third act is that it detracts from the emotionally resonant story in favour of artificially upping the stakes. I’m reminded of Roger Ebert’s review of My Neighbor Totoro where he notes how remarkable it is that the movie could sustain itself with no villains while it seems in America we don’t know how to tell compelling stories without one. Coco seems like a story rich enough without an easy villain to hate, but a lapsed lack of confidence by the filmmakers in the strength of their storytelling leaves us with one here. Of course, I should state again that this is a minor complaint as it ultimately does little to detract from the film.
Ultimately though, the greatest judge of this movie should be my child who viewed this movie not with the overly analytical eyes of her father. She was enthralled from beginning to end (a minor miracle in itself) by the “skeletons that weren’t really scary”, by the music that had her wanting to get a guitar on the way home, by the colourful houses and bright lights, and of a culture that she did not know before but now wants to see more of. That is more than enough in my book to call this movie a pretty great time at the movies.