All studios have their ups and downs, something worth keeping in mind when considering Pixar’s latest offering. Coco is no Toy Story, but neither is it Cars 3. Which is to say that while it is hardly a game-changer, and it doesn’t rank among Pixar’s very best films, it is thoroughly enjoyable and makes a serious attempt to incorporate aspects of Mexican folk culture into its story line. That’s an achievement worth mentioning for a studio whose previous products have been almost as white as Luxo, Jr., the desk lamp that famously forms part of its logo.
Coco’s story involves a plucky Mexican boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), who wants to be a musician, something strictly prohibited by his family (of course he does, and of course they do —you can’t have an “I Want” song unless you want something, and there’s no plot unless there are obstacles between the hero and what he wants). We learn the backstory for this prohibition in a beautifully-presented bit of exposition incorporating papel picado (cut paper) banners: Miguel’s great-great-grandfather was a famous musician who abandoned his wife and child (the latter being the “Coco” of the title; she’s now an elderly lady) in order to pursue fame and fortune. Today, the family trade is shoemaking, and the great-great-grandfather’s face has been torn out of the family photo adorning the family’s ofrenda, a sort of altar set up to honor deceased relatives. To Miguel, however, that’s all ancient history, and he dreams of becoming an even greater musician than his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Secretly, he creates a shrine to his idol, and learns to play his songs on a homemade guitar.
On the Day of the Dead, when families honor their ancestors and (at least in this version of events) the veil between the living and the dead becomes permeable, Miguel breaks into Ernesto’s tomb, strums a chord on his guitar, and is transported into the land of the dead. Ironically, this is the point when the film truly comes alive, displaying visual inventiveness and humor which are sadly lacking in the scenes set in the Mexico of the living. The land of the dead, as imagined in Coco, is a glittering steampunk Metropolis of futuristic high-rises and magical bridges, populated with some of the cutest and most playful skeletons you’ve ever seen. This land of the dead is a wonderfully imaginative creation, and it’s also comforting, particularly if you are given to contemplating your own mortality—because if the dead are having this much fun, and get to visit their living relatives once a year, then maybe dying isn’t so bad after all.
Of course Miguel has a sidekick for his journey, a goofy dog named Dante that becomes a lot more interesting once he becomes an alebrije or animal spirit. The party becomes a threesome when Miguel teams up with a former musician named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who wants Miguel to put his picture on his family’s altar (when the dead are no longer remembered, they die a second and permanent death, a fate Hector understandably wishes to avoid). Although Miguel doesn’t realize it at first, the clock is ticking for him as well, because if he overstays his visit in the land of the dead he will become a skeleton himself and be unable to return to his family in the land of the living.
Besides the fact that the land of the living is pure dullsville, my main problem with Coco is that it takes far too long to get around to giving us some music. When the film finally does get there, we are rewarded with some effective songs and inspired production numbers, but it’s odd that we had to wait so long for them. Musicals need music, and treating songs as a rare commodity to be doled out sparingly it not a useful approach. Indeed, it sometimes feels like Coco’s creative team was laboring under the misconception that people watch 1930s movie musicals for the plot rather than the song and dance numbers.
Coco is an all-ages animated film, and kids will be delighted with the goofy gags and repetitive humor that may wear more heavily on their adult companions. And while kids may not care so much, it does matter that Pixar tried to get this one right. The development process was not without its stumbles, the most egregious of which was the studio’s attempt to trademark the original title, Dia de los Muertos. Facing a swift backlash (and a lot of eye-rolling—because if you want to alienate a large sector of your audience before a film is completed, trying to appropriate someone else’s culture for your own financial gain is definitely the way to go), the Coco team settled down to the task of melding the Pixar formula with aspects of Mexican folk culture. The visuals are clearly influenced by Day of the Dead celebrations and most of the vocal cast is Hispanic, as is screenwriter/co-director Adrian Molina. The end result is a film that should make lots of money for Pixar, delight audiences, and encourage the creation of more adventurous animated feature films in the future. | Sarah Boslaugh