The brightly colored and sweetly sentimental ‘Coco’ trots out the Pixar formula for another round of moving lessons in individualism. It hits so many beats of so many past studio triumphs so rigidly that you can’t help but wonder if it’s all growing stale. Fortunately, that never happens.
All the old tricks still work because the world of ‘Coco’ is strange and exciting enough to be worthy of another trip down Pixar Lane. The movie has images as beautiful as any Pixar has made, jokes that stick, and swirling emotions that hit soft spots with the just the right intensity. ‘Coco’ may not be the best movie the studio has made, but that’s only because Pixar’s standards are so high. It’s still likely the best animated film of the year.
Our hero, as with so many children’s films, is a plucky young kid whose family just doesn’t understand him. That kid is 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), who adores and has an obvious gift for music. Unfortunately, his family hates music, springing from a great-great-grandmother whose husband ran off to be a musician and never returned. Since then, the family became shoemakers. They refuse to let Miguel even listen to music, never mind play it. But Miguel is persistent, secretly idolizing a famous musician named Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). This comes to a head on the Day of the Dead. Miguel’s family wants to honor the memory of their ancestors the traditional way, while Miguel wants to enter a contest to show off his musical skills. Some mistakes and circumstances soon land Miguel in the land of the dead, leading to a colorful odyssey where the young boy must dodge his deceased relatives, meet up with the legendary Cruz, and make buddies with a slapstick sad-sack dead buddy named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal). Along the way, friendships will be born, lessons will be learned, revelations will come to light, and everyone in the audience will cry.
The plot for this one is a little convoluted by the studio’s typically tight standards (well, except for its sequels, anyway). The story has a lot of ground to cover just to establish the world and to explore the celebrations of the Day of the Dead without skirting into cultural insensitivity. Fortunately, the Pixar team pulls it off nimbly. You’re deeply imbedded into the world before you realize it, and co-directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina are clearly enamored with the place. It’s easy to see why. The blinding neon colors and creepy/cute design is intoxicating. Set-pieces and musical numbers flow out of the world with constant visual stimulation. It’s a beautiful place that the Pixar animators built with their sleek yet lived-in sense of detail. It also leads the movie into the traumatic and dark places that this studio specializes in mining for tears as well. This time, they posit the idea of a second death for those in the land of the dead once they are no longer remembered by the living. As you can imagine, two layers of death means two layers of heartstring pulling from the Pixar dream-weavers, and they don’t give up the opportunity.
‘Coco’ is also a rare animated movie that deals with actual people rather than anthropomorphized animals. In Miguel and his family, we get a sprawling and flawed ensemble. They’re lovable without falling into easy sentimental traps. While the twists and reveals about the whole family aren’t hugely surprising for those paying close attention, they always come from a grounded place. The story is about the importance of family with animated characters just relatable enough to feel like family. As always, the Pixar practitioners look for more than mere sensory entertainment, but something that gently teaches their impressionable young audiences pertinent lessons about life and humanity. Here they do so sensitively, while also embracing a culture and people rarely given attention on a film of this scale. In a small way, that’s important. To do all that with some earworm catchy songs, gloriously stylized animation, genuinely moving sentiment, and even a few Frida Kahlo jokes… well, that’s something special.
‘Coco’ hits a lot of the prescribed Pixar beats in ways that are becoming easy to identify as formula. It’s not the most original movie the studio has ever made, but it is something only Pixar could have done. The film is so filled with humor and emotion and lovable characters and stunning animation that it’s impossible not to be charmed by the final results, regardless of whether the audience member in question is a child or just feels like one. The songs are hummable, the jokes are laughable, the characters are lovable, the messages are relatable, the tear-jerking is cryable. ‘Coco’ is a cinematic treat certain to tickle the eyeholes and warm the hearthole of anyone who dares sit down in front of it. Those Pixar folks sure know what they’re doing and it’s nice to see they can still find ways to tickle and surprise despite having a textbook formula to follow. If nothing else, ‘Coco’ proves that the well’s certainly not dry yet, even if that dinosaur movie a couple years ago was worrying.