Over the past two decades, there have been fewer cinematic experiences I value more than the ever-present promise of attending another Pixar masterpiece and having a good, cathartic cry. It’s not just the crying, though; it’s the crying without feeling like I’ve been manipulated into it. Make me think the dog in the story is going to die and drop a perfectly timed, string-heavy musical score in the background and I’m full-on ugly cry face, but afterward, I won’t be happy about it. Pixar movies are different, or at least the good ones are. When Pixar is at its best, the films they make earn our emotions and manage to stand alone as art even though we know the Disney machine will treat them as easily merchandised product.
Sadly, Pixar has been churning out more product than art lately, and for the next couple of years, the company has nothing but sequels on the release calendar. Maybe Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4 will be more Toy Story 2 than Cars 2 in terms of quality. I don’t know. All I know is given Pixar’s recent past and immediate future, Coco really needed to be something special. The company has to drop an Inside Out on us every once and awhile to remind us of the good times and ugly cries. That’s what helps us cope with the fallow periods filled by lesser sequels and/or superior efforts from Disney Animation Studios.
But can Coco really be that movie for Pixar? The tone-deaf attempt to trademark the phrase “Dia de los Muertos” as a potential film title was a bad first step, conjuring memories of long-standing arguments about Disney’s tendency toward cultural appropriation. It certainly doesn’t help that The Book of Life covered this same topic three years ago.
Oh, I have a bad feeling about this.
[Leaves to see Coco]
Well, shut my mouth.
Coco is…well, it’s not quite a masterpiece. The exposition-laden first act makes sure of that, but it’s an otherwise flawless movie. Coco is everything it needed it to be because Coco is Pixar at its best. This wonderful gift of a movie takes on an entire culture and its customs without ever seeming exploitative about it. Instead, it uses the animated kid’s movie format and reliable slapstick comedy of cartoon skeletons regularly reshaping their bodies and detaching their own heads to mask what is actually a deeply felt and remarkably well-observed story about complicated intergenerational conflicts. The script, co-authored by the film’s co-directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, deftly balances its ode to artistic wanderlust with its parallel message about the importance of family, both those still with us and those who have passed on, and builds to an ending which left me an emotional wreck.
The plot involves a young Mexican boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) who yearns for nothing more from life than to be a celebrated musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). However, in what plays like a family-specific Footloose situation, he is forbidden from ever playing or even listening to music. No, he is to follow in the family tradition and become a shoemaker. Aside from the neighborhood dog called Dante, nobody knows Miguel’s actually a preternaturally talented guitarist who has taught himself how to play by watching old Ernesto de la Cruz movies.
For reasons best not spoiled here, hijinks ensue and Miguel ends up trapped in the Land of the Dead on the night of Dia de los Muertos, forced to either choose death over returning to a life without music or to seek the unconditional acceptance of an idol who may not be quite what he expected. Adventure, playful crooning with a helpful trickster named Hector (a revelatory Gael García Bernal) and hard life lessons await him.
Ok. I will spoil this part: You thought Pixar had run out of ways to make you cry? Well, now they found a story where the dead can basically die again, just for good this time if they’re family forgets about them. Damn those bastards are good.
It’s a script and film which took six years to complete from conception to release and might not have ever seen the light of day if Book of Life had actually told a similar story (it doesn’t, despite the commonality of revolving around Dia de los Muertos). Unkrich and Molina invited the involvement of any of Pixar’s employees of Mexican descent and responded to accusations of cultural appropriation by hiring their biggest critics to become cultural consultants. In brainstorming the story, Unkrich and Molina also interviewed countless Pixar employees whose parents hadn’t initially supported their pursuit of a career in the arts, which obviously helped inform the narrative’s treatment of Miguel’s willingness to defy his family but ultimate preference to receive their love and acceptance.
Such exhaustive efforts to not only ensure maximum cultural sensitivity but also emotional honesty paid off. Combine that with the stunning visuals and the only negative thing I have left to say about the movie is it scared my 5-year-old niece. “Too many skeletons,” is how she put it. Fair enough. Give her a couple of years and she’ll probably love it. I know I already do, even if it did leave me crying my eyes out in the car afterward.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Coco is Pixar getting its groove back. They lifted a bit from Ratatouille (Miguel wants to play guitar against his family’s wishes just like Remy wants to cook) and Wall-E (Miguel watching old movies just like Wall-E binging Hello, Dolly!), combined it with a culturally sensitive portrayal of a Mexican family’s celebration of Dies de la Muertes, delivered us into the visually spellbinding Land of the Dead, and earned our tears. Plus, this is as close to a full-on musical as they’ve ever done, and every one of the songs is memorable.
What did you think of Coco? Let me know in the comments.