Young Miguel is a musician — at least in his heart. After a musical ancestor abandoned the family, his descendants have banned music in the home. When Miguel is accidentally transported to the land of the dead on Día de Muertos, he must make peace with the past in order to get home.
Pixar’s latest film, Coco, is well made in just about every way. But the one area it lacks in is pretty big. Let’s start with the good.
The animation is wonderful. The living side of the divide is warm and appealing. The sets have a properly worn look that feels like generations of families have lived there. The character designs are unique while still feeling real. And it all contrasts nicely with the land of the dead which is bold and exciting. The colors here are brighter and the shapes more angular. Most of the locales, while obviously having been built layer upon layer for who knows how long, feel fresher and more elaborate. And the character designs are extremely fun and decidedly less real!
Music permeates the film — for a while as a hidden influence waiting to burst out, then as an always there presence powering the narrative. Michael Giacchino’s score is great, but it’s the songs that are the main attraction. While not as memorable as those from Frozen, the songs are fitting for the story and nicely performed — with Remember Me seemingly destined for Oscar notice.
The voice cast is good all-around, with Anthony Gonzalez as Miguel, Gael García Bernal as Hector, and Benjamin Bratt as Ernesto de la Cruz handling most of the singing duties with aplomb. And Renée Victor and Alanna Ubach give fun performances as some of Miguel’s family members.
Pixar’s portrayal of Mexican heritage seems to be winning over the people that know it best. But even as an American I can tell they appear to have done things right. None of the characters feel like stereotypes, and things like the use of occasional Spanish language feel organic rather than tacked on for atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the story is a bit of a disappointment compared to the rest of the elements of the film. First off, if I had to categorize Coco I would place it more in the drama realm rather than comedy. That’s not necessarily a knock — animated films aren’t required to be funny. But I don’t feel that was the goal with this story. They didn’t set out to make a laugh-out-loud movie, but I don’t think they meant it to be as humorless as it turned out to be. Secondly, the whole thing is too predictable — for adults, at least. I saw every story beat coming, but I’m not sure if children would. For a film that tries to throw in a few twists, things were just too telegraphed in advance. Lastly, at one point the plot goes into telenovela territory, with an over the top contrivance that didn’t feel as if it fit naturally in with the rest of the story.
It may seem as if I’m not being fair to Coco compared to films from other animation studios, and that’s probably true. But Pixar has a legacy of high-quality story-telling that other studios can’t match. Ratatouille, Wall-E, UP, The Incredibles, Toy Story, Monsters Inc. — all films with humor, heart, and a tight, well-paced plot, and characters you cared about. Of Pixar’s 18 movies before Coco, almost half of them — eight — were nominated for an Oscar for writing. Coco feels like a definite step down. Still better than what some studios are putting out? Yes. But up to Pixar’s usual standard? Not quite. The plot is just a little too facile and the emotional edge a little too forced. But I am willing to admit that if Blue Sky or DreamWorks had made this I probably would be more forgiving. So take my story thoughts as you will with that in mind!
Coco is a beautiful film in a lot of ways — artistically, musically, and culturally. But the plot is a bit too dry for kids and a little too predictable for adults. It’s worth seeing for all the things it does right, but narratively it’s just a ghost of the type of stories we’re used to from Pixar.