(2017—Director: Lee Unkrich)
(out of 5 stars)
“Remember me / Though I have to travel far / Remember me / Each time you hear a sad guitar…”
Potential spoilers below
Coco finds Pixar at the height of its powers as the preeminent storytellers of western cinematic animation. It originated from a concept centering on Mexico’s Día de Muertos (Español: “Day of the Dead”) that director Lee Unkrich pitched to his Pixar colleagues, right before the release of 2010’s Toy Story 3. Unkrich, along with screenwriters Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina (who would also co-direct the film), then spent the next seven years (a Pixar production record) working with voice actors, composers, and animation cinematographers to produce a piece of art worthy of Unkrich’s original concept and of the specific cultural tradition it intends to capture. The result is a grand and delightful spectacle of sound and color, a moving tale that cannot resist arresting the emotions of its viewers. It is an achievement that makes me cheer for Pixar to continue elevating western animation to a more sublime realm of artistic beauty.
It is Día de Muertos in the fictional Mexican village of Santa Cecilia. Young Miguel Rivera (Anthony González, in his feature film debut) yearns to become a famous musician like the late national celebrity Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt, The Infiltrator, Fox’s Star, Doctor Strange), who had emerged from Santa Cecilia as well. However, Miguel comes from a proud family tradition comprised of two main parts—shoemaking and the absence of music, the latter in response to a past relative abandoning the family in pursuit of a successful musical career. Believing that Ernesto de la Cruz is that same dead relative and eager to perform in his village’s Dia de Muertos talent show, Miguel breaks into de la Cruz’s mausoleum at the nearby cemetery to borrow the late musician’s preserved guitar. Doing so transports Miguel and Dante, a friendly street dog, to the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead, where he reunites with his deceased family members. Unable to stay there beyond the next sunrise and with the whole afterlife population in search of him, Miguel teams up with a lonely jokester named Héctor (Gael García Bernal, Neruda; You’re Killing Me, Susana; Amazon Studios’ Mozart in the Jungle) to seek passage back to the Land of the Living.
One guaranteed box that Pixar checks from film to film is in wowing audiences with computer animation that surpasses their last production in technical excellence. That mesmerizing shot, for example, when Miguel gazes up at the Land of the Dead for the first time consists of several layers of around seven million individually-animated lights (kudos to Ms. Danielle Feinberg, Coco’s director of lighting photography). Pixar has traveled light years beyond the lamps in 1986’s “Luxo, Jr.”
Both Coco and Cars 3 from last June dazzle and stun the eyes with Pixar’s ever-textured and sharp animation. While Cars 3 roars in its racing sequences, Coco targets the ears with delicious and exuberant Mexican music. Any doubts of Pixar handling a different culture disappear with the passion and energy felt from the movie’s many musical performances that lift the story from scene to scene, including and especially the song “Remember Me,” the film’s musical centerpiece. Between Spider-Man: Homecoming, War for the Planet of the Apes, and now his culture-accurate underscore for Coco, composer Michael Giacchino should feel proud for his work in 2017. Pixar may leave the proper musical tales for their older Disney brethren, but Coco proves that Pixar could wade further into those waters in the future if they so choose.
Pixar’s tried-and-true storytelling has become the gold standard for western cinematic animation and yes, I did shed tears on two occasions. (I discuss the movie’s focus on Dia de Muertos at length in the “Parental Note” down below.) However, as with 2015’s Inside Out, I think Coco has begun to hint at possible elements that are growing formulaic and stale even in Pixar’s original works. To start, Coco’s script moves fast. Such a pace keeps the story’s handful of misunderstandings to a minimum. Moreover, the pace ties the misunderstandings to Miguel’s family having suppressed music and their shunned distant relative for four generations so far. Still, despite its urgent stakes, Coco could have added several seconds to its slower scenes to give the film more room to breathe—a tactic that gives many Japanese animes their transcendent quality.
Second, a few dire moments end up becoming predictable. If heroes take their time to deal a fatal blow or flip the switch, if villains deliver monologues in final battles, or if heroes fall from a height after the story shows us two flying characters, then the script is only delaying the inevitable. One can say the same for the third element, Coco’s dramatic reveal, as well. The movie constructs the buildup towards the reveal well, but the plot setup almost leaves no choice but to necessitate a dramatic reveal to restore justice. Miguel must choose either abiding by his family’s shoemaking business and suppression of music or following the musical dreams of the great-great-grandfather who abandoned his wife and little daughter. Knowing Disney, how they crack scenarios like the former, and how one cannot fathom Disney settling with the latter, one can anticipate Coco’s dramatic reveal and which character(s) it involves.
As a fan of standalone anime films and other foreign animated works, I wonder when and how Pixar will further tighten their writing to the point of reaching that meditative level of quality that many foreign works manage to reach, even in the more adventurous tales. Pixar’s legions of fans rightly view the studio as the masters of western animated storytelling. As Disney and Pixar’s last original feature-length offering of the 2010s. Coco proves to me that Pixar can move even beyond that, shedding themselves of every last western-minded, family-friendly story trapping that, in a lesser film, adds needless speed bumps. I hope Pixar makes some progress in this aim with The Incredibles 2 next year, Toy Story 4 the year after, and the untitled original projects expected to launch the studio into the next decade.
P.S. The 21-minute short “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” precedes Coco in theaters. It is a solid short with catchy music that, given its length, would have fared better as a television special rather than a pre-feature event.
(Parental Note: Coco has been rated PG by the MPAA “for thematic elements.” It has also been rated U (Universal) by the BBFC and rated A-II (Adults and older children) by the Catholic News Service for containing “nonscriptural religious ideas.” To start, it is key that any Christian-minded viewer does not invest in, nor allow their children to get caught up in, the eschatology behind the Mexican culture staple of Dia de Muertos. Unlike the definitive permanence of the four last things (i.e., death, judgment, heaven, hell), the Land of the Dead in Dia de Muertos does not operate in a wholly spiritual way or even in consideration of how its skeletal inhabitants lived their earthly lives. Other than the quirky skeletal imagery, the realm is a second life with its own physics in which each inhabitant gets to live, work, and have fun as they did on earth. Most importantly, their stay depends on their earthly remembrance. Coco’s plot tweaks the Dia de Muertos tradition by literally treating the deceased’s photographs on the altar-like ofrenda (Español: “offering”) as the dead’s spiritual lifeline and as a passport to the Land of the Living each year. As one scene in Coco demonstrates to a disturbing effect, all those in the Land of the Dead dissipate into nothingness once all earthly memory of them is gone. This gives an obvious advantage to perennial celebrities like Ernesto de la Cruz and a disadvantage to a nobody like Héctor, which is perhaps the key logical flaw in the Mexican holiday that can tend towards ancestor worship. Therefore, Christian-minded viewers should take caution when watching Coco and regard the Land of the Dead of Dia de Muertos as just a fantasy realm.)