The concept of life beyond death draws much fascination from storytellers. Pixar’s newest film, “Coco” (2017), does not necessarily stage it as a central point, but rather uses it to emphasize the coexistence of family and ambition. This idea develops through the actions of an eager boy from Mexico who breaks from tradition on Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead).
The musically gifted but naive Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) wants to pursue his dreams of achieving global fame, which clash with his family’s long-spanning history of shoemaking and a generational ban on music. Acting on his desires of achieving greatness like his idol, the world-famous Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), he abandons his family’s wishes. Looting a shiny stucco guitar from de la Cruz’s tomb, Miguel inadvertently enters the Land of the Dead, unraveling a curse and setting himself on a journey of self-discovery, assisted by the trickster spirit, Hector (Gael García Bernal).
Even with the Pixar logo stamped on its forehead, “Coco” notoriously received accusations from fans for copying “The Book of Life” (2014) — a fairly recent animated film concerning the same holiday (it’s also worth watching, though not as good as “Coco”). However, their similarities are superficial at best, which should assuage anyone worried about this issue.
As expected from all Pixar films, the animation visually impresses, challenging the best of the studio’s repertoire. Director Lee Unkrich’s and co-director Adrian Molina’s painstaking construction of the Land of the Dead is nothing short of astonishing. Connected to the living world by a bridge of ethereal orange leaves, it bursts with candy-colored districts, adorned with distinctly designed locales and gated by an ingenious security checkpoint. This attention to detail extends to its inhabitants as well; the skeletons and creature designs all boast alluring color schemes, different patterns and distinguishable appearances.
The fact that the creative team took routine research trips to Mexico makes this meticulous work all the more impressive. Admittedly, the lead up to the Land of the Dead takes its time, bathing the viewer with a hefty, but not onerous, expository load. Additionally, the family’s backstory is a bit of a chore to learn. Though the first act drags, the rest of the film is generally well paced.
Narrative conventions are generally adhered to, and Miguel’s character arc is rather predictable. Nonetheless, “Coco” emotionally pierces, due in no short part to the committed work from the primary actors. Gonzalez gives an earnest and down-to-earth performance as Miguel. Though headstrong to a fault, his insurmountable determination combined with a nearly limitless energy make it tough not to root for him. He is certainly one of the more relatable Pixar characters and, more importantly, a figure for the younger audiences to identify with. More notably, Gonzalez holds his own with a veteran presence like Bernal.
Bernal shines as Hector, giving the swindling outcast archetype some much-needed depth. Delivering his lines with a mysterious charm and acting as a reluctant pseudo-mentor to our eager protagonist, he forms an endearing chemistry with Gonzalez. This bond between the two characters builds a familiar optimist/pessimist contrast that nonetheless blooms into a compelling friendship, and perhaps something even more than that.
While not cheaply imitating “The Book of Life,” “Coco” does borrow familiar plot elements from past Pixar entries rather shamelessly. Though it handles them decently for the most part, in other instances, said elements come off as contrived. Additionally, some logical gaps within the story appear once the twists are revealed, which could have been handled better. However, these missteps can be forgiven because of the sincerity with which “Coco” goes about.
Like the best of Pixar’s movies, “Coco” balances levity and seriousness. Though lighthearted, it handles death and other dark themes so delicately you almost forget that this film is geared toward children. When serious, it becomes difficult to reject. This maturity reminds you why Pixar achieved its venerated status in the first place. Their stories push the bounds of reality, yet capture human experiences, and “Coco” certainly stays true to what Pixar stands for. Unkrich tackles conflict between family and individual with a measured execution.
The film does not demand that the audience possess an extensive knowledge of Mexican culture. Don’t let your level of familiarity with the holiday stop you from buying a ticket, because “Coco” is well worth your time. Watching with friends or family is optimal, given its nature.
Despite some narrative imperfections, “Coco” proves itself a competent addition to Pixar’s already impressive resume, cementing the studio’s creative durability. This is the last non-sequel Pixar film that will be made for a while, which definitely causes unease, especially in an environment dominated by tent-poles. For now, take it as a return to form for one of animation’s top dogs.
“Coco” releases nationwide on Nov. 22.