After over two decades and nearly 20 films, it’s refreshing for Pixar to provide its most grounded premise yet.
Following sustained success by way of talking bugs, talking toys, talking cars, talking fish, talking emotions, talking rats and “talking” robots, something about a Dia de Los Muertos-centric story featuring human characters (and, yes, talking humanoid skeletons) feels much more relatable, like Pixar declaring a coup upon itself.
But then again, that was the point of “Coco” – to showcase a world with more connections to reality than any other Pixar offering before it, and to flesh out that world with the humanity the animation giant has the reputation of conjuring.
What makes “Coco” – directed by Pixar vets Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina – great is its uncharacteristic willingness to be tethered to something familiar rather than a fantastical concept. There are no houses sailing through the sky via balloon, dystopian robots cleaning up an abandoned planet or sentient toys at our feet, but “Coco” doesn’t need any of that to be great.
And even the more supernatural elements of “Coco” boast a sensation of intimacy.
The core story hits all the familiar beats. Miguel is a young boy who – despite his family’s strict keep-music-out-at-all-costs coda – reveres it, worships it and wants to make a career out of it. That deep-rooted selfishness turns into angst which morphs into rebellions before becoming…a trip to the Land of the Dead.
Here, as expected, Miguel learns some things about himself, his family ties and loyalty. But as Pixar has been so keen to show us in recent years, the emotional victory isn’t won until near-traumatic things unfold.
“Coco” isn’t powered by the same caliber of imaginative wit and creative gags as Inside Out and Wall-E, the best of Pixar’s recent crop. Its intellect is much more accessible for the younger moviegoer who will never get tired of the slapstick, overzealous antics of Dante the dog, but for adults, it’s a little less accessible.
Disney’s inspirations are also abundantly clear. It’s impossible not to compare Dante to Ed, “The Lion King’s” bumbling hyena; Miguel to “Moana’s” heroine; and even some elements of Pixar’s iteration of the afterlife to “The Road to El Dorado.”
That said, “Coco” is still an incredibly tender meditation on forgiveness, family and the sometimes difficult-to-navigate intersection of the two.
More admirable, though, is Pixar’s faithful snapshot of a culture that has become too synonymous with negativity in a trepid 2017. The studio did its homework here, and the result doesn’t stray too far from docu-drama status, especially in the first half-hour.
The details are ever-present, but Pixar doesn’t humble-brag about presenting the Mexican culture accurately, making the consistent inclusion of those details all the more important – perhaps even more so now than when production on “Coco” first began. Mexican cuisine is eaten – with chorizo the key to a standout bit of humor – and Miguel’s family encompasses four generations living under one roof, which this critic found immensely familiar. Not to mention Unkrich and Molina exhibit respect and reverence toward the oft-misunderstood Dia de Los Muertos holiday.
If 2016’s “Moana” offered a glance at Polynesian lore, “Coco” passionately plunges into the heart of Mexico, and the holiday that encompasses its values more than anything else.
It’s balanced by a brilliantly realized environment that’s on par with James Cameron’s “Avatar.” Miguel’s journey is one fueled by the sometimes insatiable lure of following your dreams, and Pixar’s artists painstakingly manifest that vision. The stunning animation doesn’t end there, though; at points I had to convince myself that a face-painted Miguel wasn’t the introduction of a live-action character.
The film still has peek-at-your-watch moments. Pixar’s frustrating desire to tie up every loose end with as much muscle as it can pack doesn’t waver, leading to a crescendo of a climax that feels more off-beat than Unkrich and Molina intended. By the time “Coco” arrives at the real payoff, it feels like we’ve spent 140 minutes in the theater.
As for Miguel himself – the first minority primary narrative stakeholder in Pixar’s catalogue – he’s one we’ve seen often enough. Hell, we’ve almost certainly seen bits of him in ourselves. His arc isn’t revolutionary, though 12-year-old Anthony Gonzalez’s vocal performance is the stuff Pixar execs goes to sleep dreaming of – vulnerable, a bit cocky and almost absurdly sympathetic.
But in “Coco,” as the title very subtly implies, Miguel isn’t meant to provide the movie’s inevitable catharsis. He’s simply the vehicle for us to (very ably) get there, putting the gears in motion for all the necessary emotional beats– the buildups and payoffs we’ve come to expect from Pixar, with a few visuals-inspired “ooohs” and “ahhhs” sprinkled in for good measure.
“Coco” is rated PG for thematic elements
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Uback
Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina