Now that’s the Pixar I know. After a string of subpar entries including Cars 3, the studio returns to form with a film representative of the poise and technical wizardry the genre authorities have built a reputation on. Coco is a reverent tribute to Mexican cultural traditions that simultaneously elevates Hispanic heritage, and delivers a festive visual smorgasbord with a supply of heart and inventive craft deserving of the Pixar name. While not quite reaching the artistic heights of Ratatouille or Wall-E, Coco easily merits a space amongst the studio’s vast catalogue of classics.
Pixar’s latest treat tells the story of 12-year-old Miguel, who dreams of becoming a musician, but whose family vehemently shuns all music. On the eve of Day of the Dead, Miguel realizes he is the descendant of famous musician de la Cruz. After stealing the singer’s guitar from his final resting place, Miguel becomes cursed and only able to talk to the dead. The boy then encounters his deceased relatives, who whisk him off to the Land of the Dead to find help, where he searches for his long-lost ancestor de la Cruz to lift his curse so he can return and pursue his music career.
Parents with little children should know right away that Coco explores dark subject matter for a family film. Death is a topic that takes a prime focus, and themes such as grief and continuing bonds with the deceased are tackled with a mature hand by director Lee Unkrich. Coco’s grim premise and spooky imagery might be frightening for younger viewers, but the movie’s subjects will inspire practical discussion with those old enough to have seen similar content. This is nothing new for Pixar, after all, who opened Finding Nemo with the death of an entire family.
In an age when Hispanics are living under increased fear and scrutiny, Coco has arrived not a moment too soon, and can serve to begin to alleviate tensions and bridge the gap between our two cultures. Unkrich succeeds at striking the delicate chord of admiration without exploitation, and the rich Mexican traditions on display here will provide vital education for American viewers. It’s also an added benefit that the Day of the Dead offers a dense treasure trove of dazzling decor that lends itself to animation. As expected, Pixar more than lives up to the task.
When considering an animated film based on the Day of the Dead, Pixar is not the first studio to come to mind to helm the feature. With techniques favoring rounded corners and cuddly characters, one might instead favor Laika under Henry Selick. Regardless, Pixar proves itself capable of adapting stylistically to the matter at hand, delivering an eerie visual feast worthy of the occasion that inspired it. Pixar also lives up to expectations technologically, astonishing in their rendering of challenging skeleton mechanics and staggeringly detailed environments.
With a script by co-director Adrian Molina as well as Matthew Aldrich, Coco packs plenty of wit and soul to compete with the studio’s best, but some storytelling issues prevent the film from reaching masterpiece status. The Rivera family’s distaste for music is difficult to buy, several twists are easy to anticipate, and the disillusionment caused by a childhood idol is a familiar plot device, even appearing before in Pixar’s Up. Also, by not opting not to have any core characters in the Land of the Dead fade away, the film cowers from making full use of its theme of grief.
With its involved concept, Coco indicates the meticulous imagination behind Monsters Inc., while the dignified spotlight of a culture evokes Ratatouille, yet Pixar’s latest offering lacks the sparkling originality behind many of the studio’s previous works. Coco is not the first recent animated film to feature a character getting stuck in the Land of the Dead; it’s not even the first of the latter inspired by Mexican folklore. Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride as well as Guillermo del Toro’s The Book of Life covered similar territory, though with far less sophistication than Coco.
Corpse Bride had the advantage of coming first, with the film’s macabre premise marrying perfectly with Burton’s morbid style. However, 2014’s The Book of Life remains the greatest drawback to Coco’s freshness, as a festive CGI film about a character lost in the Land of the Dead already exists. Nonetheless, just as there are infinite Christmas movies, Pixar proves there are multiple Day of the Dead films that earn their keep. With ravishing visuals, and confident handling of mature subject matter, Pixar’s Coco improves on either with grace and class.