We’ve now reached the point in Pixar’s history where their outstanding movies are the exception rather than the rule. Inside Out was hailed as a return to form, but then the studio followed it up with the bland The Good Dinosaur, the adequate Finding Dory, and the soulless Cars 3. While the future for the studio as a whole remains uncertain, they’re in their element with the moving, beautiful Coco. Lee Unkrich’s film is a lovely look at family, music, and legacy, finding tangible ways to express these concepts by taking a lovely journey through Dia de los Muertos. Although the plot can be fairly predictable at times, the emotional truths at the heart of Coco cut through any narrative shortcomings to create a powerful and moving tale that will likely have you weeping by the end.
In a brief prologue, young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) tells us how music ripped apart his family when his great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife and child to become a famous musician. Miguel’s great-great-grandmother resolved to do away with music and focused on making the family a group of successful cobblers. While she succeeded, Miguel harbors ambitions to become a great guitarist. Determined to play at a festival on Dia de los Muertros, he borrows a guitar from the mausoleum of his hero, famous musician Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), but that ends up sending Miguel to the Land of the Dead. In order to get back home before sunrise, lest he risk becoming part of the Land of the Dead forever, Miguel seeks out Ernesto to get his blessing and return to the Land of the Living. To find the musician, who is just as popular in death as he was in life, Miguel teams up with Hector (Gael García Bernal), a wayward spirit who agrees to help Miguel if Miguel puts up Hector’s picture in the Land of the Living so Hector won’t be forgotten and disappear.
In its broad strokes, you can see Coco as similar to any of Pixar’s other great movies. It’s a buddy movie (Miguel and Hector), there’s a lot of world building like the gloriously realized Land of the Dead, and there’s a heavy emphasis on the importance of love and family. But the secret is in the mixture and how these elements are realized. It would have been very easy to have characters pontificate about the importance of family or music or legacy, but instead Unkrich and his co-writers Adrian Molina (who also co-directed the film), Matthew Aldrich, and Jason Katz, decide to make those elements tangible and give them weight so that we understand why they’re important.
Granted, the story goes through some standard beats to reach its destination. When you see Miguel hiding his music from his family, you know there’s going to be a blow up where he rejects his family and turns to music. When you see the picture of Miguel’s great-great-grandfather and the portion with his head has been torn off, you know there’s going to be a reveal of some kind. But these signposts don’t diminish the emotional impact because Coco is invested in what the revelations mean. When Miguel reaches the Land of the Dead, he meets the spirit of his great-great-grandmother, Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) and she offers to send him back, but only if he promises to give up music. The movie is asking, without any character having to voice it, what kind of life would you have if you gave up the thing that made life worth living? But it also forces Miguel to question why he loves music in the first place. Does he just want fame and recognition like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz, or does that music go to something deeper?
The way Coco weaves together its themes is pretty marvelous even when the story itself can be a bit flat. The film is certainly amusing, although it may not be as frequently laugh-out-loud funny as other movies in Pixar’s filmography. But that doesn’t diminish all the things Coco does right, from its wonderful songs and score to its eye-popping visuals. Rather than try to co-opt Mexican culture, Coco shows at every turn there’s a deep love for this culture and its history. A lesser studio would have relied on pop songs or chintzy shortcuts, but throughout Coco, you get the sense that the writers and animators really immersed themselves to not only be respectful, but to make Dia de los Muertos come alive for all audiences.
Coco easily surpasses some of Pixar’s recent efforts and reminds you of what the studio accomplished when they were at the top of their game. Although it will certainly inspire some debate as to whether or not it qualifies as “top-tier Pixar”, there’s no doubt that Coco possesses all the elements of the studio’s classic movies from its astounding visuals to its lovable characters to its tear-jerking resolution. The glory days of Pixar may be gone, but the studio’s spirit is alive and well in Coco.