Coco and all the images you see in this review are owned by Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
I’m far from the only one to have Pixar fatigue, but it has been WAY too long since I’ve gotten excited for another animated film from them. Even the prospect of Incredibles 2 only fills me with a mix of ennui and meh, so what hope does this film have to bring me back around on the studio? Well it’s not a sequel for one which is a good sign and its premise, while not what I would call unique (*cough* Book of Life *cough* Grim Fandango *cough*), at least appears to be fleshed out (nyuk-nyuk-nyuk) as all the trailers show an immense level of detail and craftsmanship in every frame as well as an amazingly diverse cast that looks to bring an underrepresented culture to the big screen. Hey, after the mostly positive reception and commercial success of Moana, it makes sense for Disney to stick with the formula; though hopefully we haven’t reached the point of diminishing returns just yet. Will this be the standout animated film of the year like we’re in the golden age of Pixar, or has ship already sailed for one of the biggest giants of the industry? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins by telling us the history of the Rivera family where Imelda Rivera (Alanna Ubach) was stuck raising little Coco as her husband walked out on them to live out their dream as a world famous musician. She didn’t let that get her down that she pulled herself up by her bootstraps and spent the rest of her life making shoes and teaching her family to make shoes; all the way to the present day where SHE may be dead and gone, but Coco is still around (Ana Ofelia Murguía) as the oldest living relative of the Rivera family and the great grandmother of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez). Now despite Imelda more or less banning music in the Rivera household which is a tradition that has carried to this day, little Miguel can’t help but want to be a musician like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz who was a famous musician long ago and is still fondly remembered in Mexico to this day. In fact… maybe there’s a connection between the guy who walked out on Imelda to become a famous musician, and this famous musician that Miguel is obsessed with right now!? Maybe he’s the long lost great great grandfather and the only one in his family that would understand his love of music!? Well Miguel is certainly convinced of this after finding some photographic evidence and decides to… rob Ernesto de la Cruz’s grave so he can use his guitar to win a talent competition? Okay… seems a bit extreme, but whatever! THE KID’S GOTTA PLAY!! Too bad that robbing a grave gets you a one way ticket to the afterlife as Miguel finds himself more or less a ghost to those in the living world and eventually finds himself in the city of the dead where all the people who died are now skeletons; including Imelda Rivera and the rest of his extended family! Will Miguel find a way to get back home before his brief vacation among the dead turns into a permanent residency? What will he be able to learn about himself and his family during his treat; including the elusive Ernesto de la Cruz who may be able to help Miguel live out his dreams as a musician? How the heck is a human supposed to survive in a city of the dead anyway!? It’s not like any of the residents have lungs, so do they even have oxygen there!?
It may not be PERFECT as I can certainly nit-pick several elements of this film, but this is easily the best Pixar movie since Toy Story 3. It feels like a genuine return to form for the studio which admittedly does mean that a lot of the elements in this are overly familiar if you know much about the Pixar oeuvre, but even the repetition of themes and emotional cues have enough of a new twist to them in this film that it stands out and ends up having its own identity. I’m honestly having trouble just summing up what makes this movie work so well outside of praising it for being ANOTHER PIXAR FILM, but we really haven’t had that many great animated films this year outside of LEGO Batman, so maybe it’s enough that Pixar is giving us enough to recognize it as one of their own only a little bit better than we’ve come to expect. You know, like Justice League!
It’s vibrant, funny, and heartfelt in all the ways you should expect from a Pixar film, but what really sets it apart is just how morbid the whole thing is and it’s rather interesting take on mortality and death that I’m ASSUMING has its roots in Mexican culture and are used to great effect here. It never gets so dark as to take away the childlike wonder that every new discovery brings, but there are some dark moments of humor as well as some deadly serious drama that’s peppered between the musical numbers Miguel he meets along his journey are all people who have died and who he’ll probably never end up seeing again (assuming Disney doesn’t push for a sequel), and it even lends a bit of twisted humor to the whole thing like one character who was murdered by a bell dropping on his head; presumably shattering all his bones and causing his brains to burst violently out of his ears. A far cry from a lot of other Disney films which reserves death for getting rid of villains and the occasional secondary character to maximize emotional impact. Now that’s not to say that the film is LACKING in strong emotional impact as the first act is absolutely BRILLIANT in the way that it handles the family dynamic and the dramatic hooks for our main character. Okay, it never becomes NOT silly that the source of tension is THE BANNING OF MUSIC (what is this, Footloose?), but Miguel’s plight is downright Shakespearean as he’s forced to confront his family over what his legacy REALLY is and one they are working so hard to deny him. You feel for the kid and even root for him when he starts to act selfish and self-righteous (like when he’s robbing graves) because… well, the movie works to justify it! The film never really portrays his actions as RIGHT, but they’re certainly understandably explained to the audience!
Sadly, things start to taper off and even get a bit bumpy once we get to the second act. As much as I love the way THE LAND OF THE DEAD is visually conceptualized (it looks as much like a sci-fi city as it does a magical one) and the various in universe explanations for the Día de Muertos traditions, there are a lot of nagging issues that crop up as we spend the second act exploring it. There’s just little nagging issues like how only ONE character in the entire city (not a particularly rich or powerful one either) seems to be one of the few people with a giant cat dragon thing, or how the rather limited timeline forces a talent competition to take place on the SAME NIGHT that the winner is supposed to give a performance halfway across the city (no time to rehearse or even a sound check I guess), but the biggest problem is that the film ultimately feels like it’s just spinning its wheels and looking for a ways to keep the plot moving to fill out an anemic runtime. Compare this to Toy Story where there’s a similarly straightforward goal (we need to get somewhere within a rather small timeframe), but the journey to get there has lots of twists and turns where our two characters learn a lot about each other along the way and find a way to get past their differences. The goal, in and of itself, is secondary so it makes sense to push the resolution of that conflict until the closing minutes of the film. Here, while they don’t wait THAT long to get to THE GOAL as it were, it doesn’t feel like there’s enough progression of Miguel’s character to justify ALL of the time they spend getting him from point A to point B; especially considering how much stronger the movie gets once he DOES reach his goal. I’m not sure exactly what I would want to cut as the scenes in the second act are entertaining (and even profound in one part where they have to get a guitar), but I was getting a bit antsy for us to get to the hour mark so that we can get back to things much more pertinent to Miguel’s character arc.
Now I don’t want to come off as OVERLY negative here as the second act isn’t really BAD as it is a little bit unnecessary. Once we get into the third act… HOLY CRAP! Everything that made the first act work so well is not only brought back to the forefront but cranked up to eleven as the revelations and the character interactions are truly fascinating and will genuinely break your heart at points. The big twist in the third act, while a bit too coincidental and ends up opening a plot hole or two, does have an extraordinary amount of impact and works extraordinarily well at bringing the pertinent themes about family and legacy to the resolution of the conflict. To me, I felt that the twist made some of the moral dilemmas a bit TOO easy as it resolves some characters of responsibility for their actions as well as skirts some uncomfortable truths about how unhealthy family relationships could be, but it leads to a very fun and very satisfying finale that hits all the Pixar high points; including a musical number that I’m sure will be the last straw in getting plenty of people to break down in the theater (it was a bit too on the nose for me to really get THAT emotionally wrecked by it, but there’s a moment not too long after it that really got to me).
It’s a movie that may not do EVERYTHING right as the somewhat saggy second act is a bit of drag on everything (as are a few of the less than perfectly explained plot details), but it still ends up being such a unique and fascinating exploration into what it means to be a family and what one person can do, with enough determination, to change the hearts and minds of those around them. It’s more than worth checking out at the theaters as it just might be my favorite animated film of the year (neck and neck with LEGO Batman) and is one of the few movies this year that feels genuinely heartfelt while still keeping things accessible for a young audience. I don’t know if Pixar is gonna be back on top as far as animation studios come 2018 (it’s almost a shoe in for Best Animated Feature), but this is a very solid step in the right direction and is hopefully a sign of things to come from the studio that’s been struggling to maintain the absurdly high expectations that it has built for itself over two decades of groundbreaking work. As long as they don’t make a Cars 4 or a Monsters Junior High, then we’re all good, Pixar!
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