Disney-Pixar films are famous for their creative concepts, from talking toys to personified emotions to the monsters under the bed. This winter, the latest Pixar movie attempts to tell a warm, kid-friendly story centered on a holiday about death.
Somehow, Coco makes this odd juxtaposition work wonderfully.
Coco, the first Lee Unkrich-led Pixar film since Toy Story 3, uses mind-blowing animation, captivating voice acting, and shockingly genius writing to tell a story about the traditional Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos.
Judging from the trailers, the film seemed like another mediocre rehash of worn-out tropes. Sure, Pixar would animate it beautifully, but it would just boil down to the usual “family is important” themes delivered with childlike simplicity and repackaged with Latino aesthetics.
Thankfully, the underwhelming trailers were not because Coco had nothing to show off. On the contrary, the promotions seemed empty because the film’s twists and turns are so rich and cohesive that not much could be shared without spoiling the experience.
Coco tells the story of Miguel, a young Mexican boy growing up in a multi-generational family of shoemakers. Long ago, Miguel’s great great grandfather, a musician, abandoned his wife and daughter Coco. Ever since, the entire family has shunned any form of music from their lives. However, Miguel knows he is born to make music.
So there we have the most basic Disney hero formula: family does one thing, kid wants to do another, family does not understand. However, it is how Coco executes and resolves this core conflict of family that truly separates it from the crowd.
Miguel’s culture believes that on Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, families must place photos of dead loved ones on an “ofrenda,” or shrine, to guide the spirits of their ancestors back to the world of the living for one night. Early on in the story, Miguel learns that this belief is true in a literal sense.
The bulk of Miguel’s tale takes place in the world of the dead. This unique depiction of the afterlife is somehow both otherworldly and intimately relatable. Our hero interacts with his deceased, skeletal family members in much the same way as we do with our living loved ones.
Speaking of skeletons, Pixar’s best moments of animation in this film are found in the presentation of its many dead characters. The animation team truly took advantage of using characters made entirely of bones, allowing them to bend, break apart, and re-form in creative ways that most other characters would not allow. Coco is truly a visual wonder.
In addition to the spectacular sights, Coco sounds incredible as well. An all-Latino voice cast lends engaging and believable life to each moment on-screen. Miguel’s Anthony Gonzalez is especially riveting, both speaking and singing.
Coco’s soundtrack is the most exciting and lively group of songs to ever grace a Pixar film. Gonzalez shows impressive vocal talent for a twelve-year-old, and one of the songs is intertwined with each stage of the plot, which is a nice twist.
Despite the excellent visuals and vocals, it all takes a backseat to Coco’s incredible story. Many Disney films simply follow one or two threads of plot that are easy to follow and predict. Coco, on the other hand, incorporates every on-screen moment in an integral way to form a cohesive story that is just as likely to blow your mind as leave you in tears.
Miguel’s journey is a familiar one on the surface. We all want to be accepted for who we are, especially by our families. We all want validation when we feel in our heart that our way is the right way. Nonetheless, Miguel’s tale is so full of twists, revelations, and surprisingly heartwarming moments that this story of family crisis still feels brand new.
Many Disney movies tell a story of childhood rebellion against a rigid family, but few approach this theme like Coco does. Unlike many one-dimensional children’s movies, neither side in Coco is one-hundred percent right or wrong. Miguel makes mistakes, and so do his family members, both dead and alive. Each character must come to his own balance in this conflict of family and music.
By taking each character through their own version of Miguel’s journey, Coco creates a full cast of real, relatable people, rather than one dynamic hero and a bunch of static tropes.
Whether flesh-clad or skeletal, every character in this film is astonishingly human. While this makes for an excellent story, it’s also a disadvantage, in a way. The most memorable Pixar movies feature bold, colorful characters who are impossible to forget. Buzz Lightyear, Dory, and Mike Wazowski simply refuse to allow their films to fade from public consciousness. Coco does not have quite the same level of character appeal, despite its impeccable writing.
I truly was not expecting much from Coco when I entered the theater. I thought it would be all flash and no substance. Early in the movie, I thought I had the entire plot figured out. I’ve never been so wrong. Coco is surprising, entertaining, and emotionally engaging from beginning to end. This film is in a tight race with 2015’s Inside Out for best Pixar movie of the decade.