With the release of Coco, the 19th film from Pixar Studios, there are at least two questions the answer to which every member in the audience can be certain of before that desk lamp comes hopping across the screen. Will the animation be top-notch, meriting adjectives like “vibrant” and “gorgeous” and perhaps even “luscious?” Without a doubt. Will the voice acting be superb, enhancing the aforementioned animation in every way? You bet it will! You can also count on at least a few effective strummings of the ol’ heartstrings. (And thanks to films like Up and Inside Out, you might even dread how destroyed you’ll be after said strumming.)
Of course, that doesn’t mean a Pixar film is quite the sure thing it was before, say, 2011’s Cars 2 (for many, Pixar’s critical nadir). Inside Out and Finding Dory were home runs, but in between, there was The Good Dinosaur (a weak infield popup, at best).
Fortunately, thanks to its story and, most importantly, its setting, Coco will count as one of the studio’s successes—and for many who long to see their culture center stage instead of just a flavor sprinkle, the story of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) as he struggles to pursue his dreams may prove Pixar’s most meaningful film yet.
The second recent movie set during Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican celebration of life/remembrance of the dead, Coco comes so closely on the heels of 2014’s The Book of Life that it’s difficult to imagine the proximity didn’t cause headaches and story adjustments from the former. As it stands, both films feature young male protagonists trying to pursue their love of music despite strong opposition from a family that has a different profession in mind. (In Coco, it’s shoemaking. In The Book of Life, it’s bull-fighting.) In both films, the protagonists end up in the afterlife, struggling to return. But while The Book of Life has a more standard latticework of menace and obstacles—young Manolo’s trip to the underworld is the result of some cheating in a wager between gods—the primary antagonist for most of Coco is actually Miguel’s own family. This leads to some plot beats that feel “off,” with the musical cues seeming to blindly serve a different film. (There are several sequences in which the search for Miguel by a large, colorful beast serving our protagonist’s family is treated the same as if it’s a predator hunting its prey—but that’s manifestly not what’s happening.) A more traditional antagonist is eventually introduced, but most of Coco’s mildly head-scratching moments occur prior.
Still, the implicit contract between films like Coco and the audience is a simple one: Sit back and let us immerse you in a world you haven’t seen before, or one you’ve only imagined. Director Lee Unkrich and crew do just that. Coco’s underworld is richly textured and imagined, but so is the “real world” where we start and end up. Sure, by now it’s what we expect from Pixar, but it’s notable nonetheless. And, as I alluded to in the opening, the lasting accomplishment of Coco lies in the reverence and joy with which it depicts another culture’s celebration. Dia de los Muertos isn’t used as some convenient, exotic setting or explored through the eyes of someone from the United States (though early iterations of the script did just that, apparently). Instead, the film represents a full embrace of a culture and its people, as well as a celebration of family, both present and past. As such, it’s difficult to imagine healthier holiday fare.
Director: Lee Unkrich
Writers: Adrian Molina, Matthew Aldrich (screenplay); Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich (story)
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Renée Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguia, Alanna Ubach, Jaime Camil, Sofía Espinosa, Selene Luna, Alfonso Arau, Edward James Olmos
Release Date: November 22, 2017
Michael Burgin is Movies Editor for Paste.