Pixar’s Coco, the latest in the studio’s push for heart-warming, often deft and original family fare, is everything the company does in the best and worst of ways. It’s beautiful, engaging and in its best moments capable of an emotional high few similar films can match. It’s also shamelessly manipulative with a plot that telegraphs every punch so far in advance, Glass Joe would have been able to get out of the way. The fact that it works as well as it does is a testament to the strength of its main characters and what Coco has to say about family. But a lot of that comes at the requirement of not thinking about it too hard.
A lot of people will say that’s a fair trade off – it’s just a movie and you shouldn’t be thinking about it too hard to begin with. Perhaps that’s true, but it’s a sentiment that tends to come at the benefit of the filmmaker, especially when they’re relying on extremely well-worn tropes to pull of the emotional impacts they’re going for. If the main character in a film is an artist of some sort, a big part of their story will be to learn to believe in themselves and their talent and ignore whatever is telling them not to. In young Miguel’s case (Gonzalez), most of that giant ‘nooooo’ is coming from his family.
Not just his mother and father, but his cousins and grandmother and aunts and uncles in an unbroken line leading back to his great-great-grandmother Imelda (Ubach), who once saw her dreams of family ruined when her husband abandoned the family to follow his dreams of music stardom. From that day to this all forms of music were outlawed in the family, which focused instead on the family business of shoemaking. Until Miguel, that is, a music lover and want-to-be singer with a plan to break out of his family’s shadow by performing at the talent competition during the Day of the Dead festival instead of celebrating his ancestors with the rest of his family. A family he comes face-to-face with when, after stealing the guitar of famed troubadour Ernesto de la Cruz (Bratt), he is cursed and sent to the afterlife. His only way out is to find one of the ancestors he has avoided in life and get their blessing to follow his life.
Like a lot of Pixar films, many of the pleasures Coco has to offer are in its look. Co-directors Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and Adrian Molina (The Good Dinosaur) have designed an afterlife unlike any other, brilliant in its color schemes and layout without copying similar work Pixar has done in the past. Populating the land with skeletons has given the animators abundant tools to play with and Coco is full of sight gags galore, few that haven’t been done before but all successful nonetheless. There are more than a few higher brow jokes, particularly an ongoing one about artist Frida Kahlo, which are even more successful. The phrase ‘something for the whole family’ is as overused as any phrase in criticism, but in Coco’s case it’s true.
And it’s tied together with a lot of heart. As well-trod as Coco’s path is, the focus on family and Miguel’s own optimism make the tried and true elements land. [Some fantastic songs don’t hurt]. There are few stumbles along the way, particularly a late introduction of a villain on top of the ticking-clock plot (Miguel must get his blessing before sunrise or he can never leave the land of the dead) and an act two revelation which is obvious to even the most credulous viewer far, far earlier. For any of its stumbles or familiarity, however, Coco is an imaginative, fun, charming trip filled with so much heart it (mostly) makes up for the fact that it’s taking us someplace we’ve been before.
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