It feels like Pixar has been vastly inconsistent as of late. There was a pretty large slump between 2010 and 2015 in which their particular brand of film failed to satisfy. Pixar’s inexorable critical acclaim suffered with Cars 2 (2011), still the least meaningful film in Pixar’s library, and both Brave (2012) and Monsters University (2013), films which are serviceable at best. 2014 was silent, leaving a solid year in which people wondered whether Pixar was ever going to reach their former glory again. While Inside Out (2015) was a masterpiece and reclaimed the pillar, the reverie faded merely three months later with the overall disappointment of The Good Dinosaur. Pixar hasn’t exactly reentered the slump, but the string of recent sequels with no completely new brands was disappointing. Finding Dory (2016) was fine, and Cars 3 (2017) was passable, but many were looking to Coco to hopefully become Pixar’s next Inside Out.
So, how is it? Well, it’s not quite as strong as Inside Out, but Coco is adorable, wonderful and absolutely heartwarming. And, for being a large studio film, it’s also surprisingly small.
Coco’s story is pretty familiar: a young boy named Miguel has a dream of being a musician, but he lives in a family with a long lineage of shoemakers who hate music. One day Miguel stumbles upon a possible missing link to a musician in his family history, leading him to an old heirloom with a curse that gets him stuck in the afterlife on Dia de los Muertos. With the help of an old skeleton named Hector, he sets out to find his forgotten ancestor and find a way home. There’s nothing especially new or bold here to test the waters: these beats all ring familiar. However, while the story itself is fairly predictable, the strength of the film ultimately comes down to masterful execution, both artistically and emotionally, and through vivid representation of Mexico’s culture.
In terms of execution, Coco is about what you’d expect from a Pixar film: stellar animation, fantastic visual and character design, solidly written story largely driven by emotional beats, and music that supplements the tone and feel of the movie at large. Also, while not necessarily a given in a Pixar film, all the main characters display strong characterization and empathy while all the side characters are just developed enough to adequately breathe life into space without damaging the story. When just considering the nuts and bolts, Coco is a well-oiled machine; while it may not be a brand new vehicle, it actually leverages its familiarity to excel.
I mentioned that the film was surprisingly small, by which I mean it isn’t especially ambitious. This is a hero’s journey structure through and through, with one or two obvious twists and a resolution you’ll have already figured out 20 minutes in. That said, I’d still defend this as a strong story--not with regard to originality but definitely where effectiveness is concerned. This movie works because this type of story works, and Coco amplifies its narrative with lovingly familiar/familial characters, a healthy incorporation of Mexican culture, and a solid focus on emotional intelligence. It speaks highly of Coco that the film was hopelessly predictable but still got me heavily invested and...emotionally compromised. I probably wasn’t the only crying person exiting the theater.
Representation is an interesting topic with Coco, especially with the criticism the film faced before launch. It was a common opinion that Pixar was blatantly copying Reel FX’s earlier film Book of Life (2014), another film based heavily in Mexican culture and exploring Dia de los Muertos, which seems largely misguided postmortem since outside of an aesthetic inspired by the holiday and stringing the story through the “land of the remembered,” the two narratives are sufficiently distinct from each other. Ultimately, I think the bigger question is “how is Mexican culture represented,” and as a relative outsider (my heritage is Peruvian, not Mexican) I feel Coco provides an environment that doesn’t simply appropriate culture--but actively lives and settles within it. It’s incredibly refreshing to see such a big budget film treat the Latino community with coverage that reads as genuine and intimate rather than pandering.
It’s so easy to recommend Coco to friends, family, basically everyone. It’s not the most challenging movie, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s charming, lovingly well-made, and incredibly intimate, all while remaining surprisingly small and potent.