Following a few lackluster delayed sequels, it’s easy to count out Pixar. Just know that as soon as they’re counted out, Pixar always pulls something out of their hard drives that smacks the audience in the face with emotions. Coco is a triumph for the type of emotionally naked stories that have made Pixar so beloved. Admittedly, some of their recent works have suffered because of that formula – the one set by Toy Story of two misfits who go on a journey and find something more about each other – but Coco excels within those limits. Faint praise in theory, but watching it unfold with Coco is truly magical and otherworldly while completely relatable on a human level.
Of course, a large part of this is the cultural context of Coco. This is no Epcot Center Mexico Pavilion. You can tell that directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina have a respect and knowledge of Mexican culture that gives this adventure an identity. One explored before in recent films like underrated Book of Life. However, the world and designs truly do feel different, mainly in terms of its themes of music and family over Book of Life‘s more romantic inclinations. It’s a far better musical than Book of Life, creating new more distinctly Disney style songs and art styles that fit the Mexican culture. Which isn’t in that a huge negative. The designs of the skeletal creatures are cartoonishly elaborate, like the next evolution of the skeletal creatures featured in the Walt-era short The Skeleton Dance, especially with the Hector (Gael García Bernal). Each individual bone has weight as it rattles along. Yet, there’s still the Dia de Muertos holiday firmly engrained in the look and sound that makes it far more distinctive with each individual skeleton’s shape and body type.
Speaking of those songs, Coco is Pixar’s first musical production, short of having Randy Newman singing random songs. Here, the music is cleverly designed around the adoration of an iconic musician from this land Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Our protagonist Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is so drawn to the songs and feelings he has from hearing that music, he wishes to spread it himself by playing even if his family is against it. Such context gives the catchy melodies so much more meaning and the animation on these performances is magical. Managing to stretch the limits of human anatomy while perfectly imitating the art of being a musician. A visual context for the emotions our lead feels.
Coco of course wouldn’t have this without the charming cast of characters around. Miguel is a likable child protagonist, with understandable fears and regrets that make his journey a delight to watch. Especially once he tags along with Hector. They have plenty of comedic hijinks that explore the nooks and crannies of this world. The night life, the colorful spirit guide animals and even the sad corners few would want to tread down. It gives the afterlife a sense of fun with just the right amount of gravity to keep the story moving along. The stakes build from multiple perspectives as well, considering Miguel’s own worries about what his family thinks of him now that he’s gone behind their back as a musician. The highlight of the voice cast really is Gael Garcia Bernal, as he gives Hector more dimension than a trusty sidekick role and manages to warm many hearts by the end.
Although Pixar is known for many tear jerker moments over the last several years, Coco manages to turn this into the entire climax of the film. The tears being jerked here last a solid 15 minutes or so, with few moments to break before the tears fill up your eye sockets yet again. All while being earned spectacularly. Some have accused Pixar of being far too manipulative in their pursuit of emotional catharsis. Even the ending of Unkrich previous effort Toy Story 3 gets a bit of flack for this. But Pixar’s greatest strength really is managing to address brutal emotional scenarios as a way of showing these characters the truth underneath their day to day lives. The core gooey emotional center that makes them all connect.
Ultimately, Coco is a marvel of Disney/Pixar’s craft. A love letter to this culture with a human story of identity and understanding that’s universal. The gorgeous animation and catchy songs all pour into the typical mold while delivering something special thanks to the ingredients within from the Mexican influences. The Land of the Dead is filled with familiar human touchstones. Including how we can perceive an iconic presence and see something underneath, which is relevant given some recent troubling news related to Pixar. Yet, also relevant were some comments made by Rashida Jones as she exited Toy Story 4, where she claimed that Pixar is “a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice. We encourage Pixar to be leaders in bolstering, hiring, and promoting more diverse and female storytellers and leaders. We hope we can encourage all those who have felt like their voices could not be heard in the past to feel empowered.” Giving Coco – a gorgeous film with a cultural identity that isn’t stolen as much as deeply celebrated – your dollars is a great way to hopefully move things forward.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Guitar Strings
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