Coco is the first Pixar movie that’s the story of an ordinary boy. There’s more to it than that, of course. It’s also a multigenerational family drama, Pixar’s first musical, and a Divine Comedy-esque journey through the Mexican land of the dead. (The street dog that accompanies Miguel is named Dante.) But, compared to some of Pixar’s previous outings, which have featured a clownfish searching for his lost son, the personified emotions of an eleven-year old girl, and a rat who wants to be a chef, Coco is much more traditional Disney.
Make no mistake, though; Coco tells an ambitious and satisfying story that falls only slightly short of Pixar’s best work.
Coco follow Miguel Rivera, a young musician who is part of “the only family in Mexico who hates music.” Miguel spends his days practicing his guitar out of earshot of his family and watching hidden VHS tapes of his hero, the legendary musician Ernesto de la Cruz. The memory of Miguel’s great great grandfather, who abandoned his family to become a musician, runs deep in the Rivera family. When Miguel’s grandmother discovers his guitar, she destroys it.
It’s this destruction that sets off the events of the movie, as Miguel steals a guitar from Ernesto de la Cruz’s tomb to compete in a Day of the Dead talent show. For this, he is trapped in the land of the dead. There, he meets up with his deceased ancestors, all skeletons making their yearly passage into the land of the living over the marigold petal bridge that separate the worlds.
To return, Miguel must get a blessing from a dead family member before dawn. All of them, however, impose the condition that Miguel never play music again. So, Miguel roves out into the land of the dead to get a blessing from his musician great great grandfather. On the way, he enlists the help of the deceased Héctor, a kind-hearted rogue desperate also to return to the land of the living, and comes face to face with his hero, Ernesto.
Miguel’s story is a straight-forward coming-of-age tale that follows all the beats of the hero’s journey. It’s well executed, but there’s nothing novel about the mechanics of the plot. Instead, it’s the visual imagery sets this film apart from more traditional children’s movies.
The land of the dead is stunning. Rendered in an otherworldly purple-red pallet, the vertical urban environment is both mazelike and bustling with life. It’s an engaging mixture of the modern and historical, with cobbled streets, suspended tram ways, and a giant stadium filled with thousands of skeleton concert-goers. It’s like nothing else that I’ve seen in a movie.
Coco has several twists and turns, as well as a complex mythos, but Pixar never gets mired in exposition the way a lesser studio might. Once the film reaches the land of the dead twenty minutes into its runtime, it doesn’t let up till the end.
Coco is buoyant. It’s neither heavy and plodding nor weightless in the way many children movies are.
The conclusion waves aside some of the pre-established rules of the land of the dead to give us a happy ending. It’s hard to fault Pixar movie for that, but it does feel partially unearned, if only in terms of internal consistency.
In fact, the largest criticism I can make is not about Coco, but of the short that precedes it in theaters. It’s telling that upon returning home for the theater, the first article I found on Coco counseled movie-goers “When to Show Up to Coco to Avoid Seeing the Frozen Short That Everyone Hates.”
Olaf’s Frozen Adventure is exactly as bad as it’s been hyped to be. It’s the length of a full television show. And, even ignoring the visual, cultural, and thematic mismatch with Coco, it fails to tell an engaging story. I don’t want to harp on this too much, but the article estimated that you should arrive 37 minutes after your showtime to avoid it. Do that.
Don’t let it make you skip Coco, though. I haven’t even touched on Coco’s great soundtrack and what is by all accounts (for obvious reasons, I can’t speak authoritatively on this) an authentic and respectful take on Mexican culture. Coco is the best Pixar film in years. It’s well worth your time and money.
Review by Patrick Doyle