Coco Is Alive On Arrival

In terms of comparing it to past PIXAR productions, Coco is most evocative to me of Ratatouille and not just because both are PIXAR films taking place in non-U.S. territories in the modern era and both are the only features in the studio’s canon to depict characters drinking alcohol on-screen. Both are animated family movies heavily reliant on dialogue, with little in the way of big chase scenes or explosions (which, of course, are not inherently bad elements to have around) and both explore the concept of chasing your dream in a nuanced realistic fashion while still utilizing heavily fantastical elements. Plus, Coco, like Ratatouille, is a pretty great movie and is easily one of the studios strongest creations from this decade.

In the Rivera family, there is only one way to live: making shoes. Shoe-making has been the default occupation for members of this family ever since Mama Imelda Rivera (Alanna Ubach) worked hard to create a lucrative shoe-making business after her musician husband abandoned bother her and their daughter. That musician walking out on Imelda Rivera is also responsible for the other pivotal rule in the Rivera household, music of any kind is banned, which is a problem for 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzales) who wishes for nothing more than to be a musician like his hero, the long-deceased Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who is like the Gusteau to Miguel’s Remy in that he serves as a source of inspiration and hope for a plucky dreamer.

On the important holiday of Dias de Los Muertos, tensions between Miguel and his music-despising family members reach a head and he decides to go out to perform at a major music festival in the town square as a way to finally chase his dream. Problem is that Miguel needs a guitar, and after doing some searching, he finds one at the resting place of Ernesto de la Cruz. Right after plucking some strings on the guitar, Miguel finds himself immediately transported to the Land of The Dead, where he gets to meet skeleton versions of his ancestors, including Mama Imelda Rivera, and also Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a skeleton who offers to help Miguel get back home to the land of the living in exchange for a favor that’ll ensure he doesn’t become forgotten by the non-deceased.

The premise of Coco in conception and in how its first executed comes across like a charmingly traditional fable, which works out nicely in terms of immediately making the personalities of Miguel and his individual family members broad but discernible as well as making the mechanics of how the Land of the Dead operate easily digestible (thankfully, the screenplay by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich doesn’t get sidetrack in extraneous world building). But there’s an interesting sleight of hand going on here on a narrative level as a seemingly simple tale begins to gather more thematic complexity as it goes along with the individual characters carrying more depth than expected underneath the surface.

It’s an interesting way to have the story mirror Miguel’s overall arc of chasing his dream of being a musician, as both Miguel’s ambitions and the story itself start out in black-and-white terms before the journey the character goes on begins to inform more nuanced traits into the proceedings. That’s a clever way to organize the story and helps Miguel’s journey feel as unexpected for the audience as it is for the audience. Heck, I’ll freely admit I predicted one late in the game plot turn early on and that lured me into a sense of thinking I knew exactly where Coco was going only to be enjoyably blind-sided by other major plot turns waiting in the wings.These key plot developments are able to have an impact because the characters themselves are well-conceived, especially Hector who steps into the movie seemingly just to fill the role of comic relief sidekick but proceeds to garner more and more depth each scene that he appears in

The animation used to bring this plot to life allows PIXAR to briefly rectify one of my biggest criticisms of their recent animation, which is that they’ve become too focused on one visual style, that of plopping heavily stylized characters into ultra-realistic backgrounds. I guess it’s mildly cool that they can create individual sand particles now for scenes set on the beach in Cars 3, but does it really result in any better looking sand-oriented backgrounds than the more simplified ones seen in the 1957 hand-drawn animated short film Ali Baba Bunny? What I’m trying to say is, their realistic backgrounds feel more like ways to create fun facts about the power of their computer animation software instead of actually creating visually memorable backgrounds or character designs.

Luckily, Coco offers the chance for the PIXAR animation team to go bananas in the Land of the Dead which is chock full of stylized architecture and giant brightly colored animals that couldn’t exist in the real world. Plus, the skeletons themselves are loads of fun to just watch move around on-screen, especially the lanky Hector whose limbs can easily detach themselves from his body and create some fun physical-based comedy. Hopefully, future PIXAR movies utilize animation hew are closer in style to Coco and Inside Out in that they’ll utilize these kind of heavily stylized design choices that make Coco such a visually gorgeous feature.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering if Coco continues that PIXAR tradition of containing some kind of sequence that pulls at your heartstring, I can confirm that it very much does. Director Lee Unkrich made grown adults everywhere sob at computer-animated objects with his last PIXAR directorial effort Toy Story 3 and he’s done that again here with a final five minute stretch of the story that caps the story on a poignant restrained note that’s both great on its own merits and also left me emotionally affected on a highly personal note that I did not expect. Despite it leaning on certain storytelling tropes of PIXAR films and even just animated American family movies general, there are lots of unexpected elements to be found in the thoughtful and lively Coco.