Later this month will see the release of Coco, Pixar’s 19th animated feature. Not only is the film notable for being another feather in the studio’s cap, but it’s notable for being a film that delves into the Mexican culture. From Abuelita’s use of her chancla to the seamless transitions from English into Spanglish by the character, Coco is a film that will undoubtedly resonate with many Mexican-Americans.
As someone who grew up as a second/third generation Mexican-American (depending on what side of the family you’re looking at), there was a lot here that resonated with me on a personal level. It’s a reality that’s not often represented in mainstream media, and from that perspective, it’s impossible not to give Pixar a round of applause for representing the culture and making it very clear how much they cared about getting it right.
But setting aside that inherent bias I’m bound to have as a result of this personal connection, how did the movie fare? That’s what we’re here to discuss.
Mostly taking place on the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), Coco follows a young boy Miguel. Generations ago, his great-great grandfather left his great-great grandmother Mamá Imelda to pursue his dream of music. He was never seen again, and Mamá Imelda swore off music and created a generations-long ban for the entire that reached all the way to poor Miguel.
But Miguel is a dreamer. Inspired by his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz, Miguel is determined to seize his moment and become a musician. In his attempts to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself in the Land of the Dead, and his attempts to find a way back home, he begins a journey that unlocks his true family history.
Let’s start with the obvious stuff here. Coco is a damn gorgeous movie. Of course, coming from a studio as renowned as Pixar, that isn’t exactly a huge surprise, but it’s still worth pointing out. Not only is is absolutely beautiful, but it’s all done at a scale that’s unparalleled in Pixar’s history. The world feels vibrant, rich, and entirely realized. They didn’t just create eye candy here with the land of the living and the Land of the Dead — it’s eye candy that feels tangible, lived in, and real. As you’ve undoubtedly seen in the trailer, the look of the Land of the Dead itself is a sight to behold, and one that won’t be easily beat — even by Pixar themselves — in the near future.
The characters are also a huge selling point here. Miguel himself is a very likable and determined boy — one who anyone who’s had a big dream can relate to. But the supporting cast here is fantastic too. From Abuelita to Mamá Imelda, they really worked to create a fittingly large Mexican family — all without going too overboard. There’s just enough time to get to know each of them without overwhelming the viewer, and the ones they do focus on really do work in delivering the emotional beats they’re supposed to.
One other memorable supporting character is that of Hector. Starting off as sort of a shifty skeleton determined to get back to the living, we quickly realize that there’s a great deal of tragedy behind him, and that goes a long way to making the film feel like its emotional stakes are well rounded outside of just Miguel.
Coco itself is very fast-paced. After some admittedly explain-y setup in the first act, things really get set into motion when they get to the Land of the Dead, and audiences who enjoy fast, yet emotional arcs will find a lot to like here.
But the movie isn’t exactly perfect. While I’m sure the majority of viewers will take to Coco just fine, those looking for an interesting narrative may find themselves a bit bored. Yes, there were some cool twists and turns along the way, but the movie is a very traditionally-structured story that settles easily into clearly defined tropes. It’s not bad by any means, as there’s a reason why tropes exist. However, it does end up making the film fill a bit uninspired at times, and I very much found myself predicting the overall plot beat for beat as the story moved along.
That being said, good stories are all about execution, and while Coco does follow the most clearly defined of plots, it does so with great conviction and effect. I definitely knew when certain emotional beats were ready to hit, and yet me knowing they were coming did absolutely nothing to prepare me for when the actual moments hit.
To put it simply, I cried in probably three separate moments in the flick. And no, not man tear cries. Legit tears. Little girl with a skinned knee tears. The film did such a great job at setting up the big payoff moments that when they came around, they had the desired effect of physically assaulting my emotions.
I’m an admirer of Pixar and their amazing track record of films, but there are only two other Pixar films that have reached me on an emotional level as much as this film, and that’s Toy Story 3 and the first five minutes of Up. So while my intellectual side find Coco to be a bit on the boring side as a storyteller, my irrational side was thoroughly captivated throughout, and especially in those key instances.
All in all, despite my gripes with the narrative, I’d say this makes perhaps the strongest entry in Pixar’s filmography since Toy Story 3, with Inside Out being the only film in the last seven years coming in as a close contender.
Without a doubt, audiences will be charmed by the characters, the amazing design, and unparalleled animation, but more than anything, they’ll be brought in by the heart of the movie. For those who have been a bit jaded in the years since Cars 2 hit theaters, Coco is a welcome reminder that Pixar’s position in the animated industry is well earned.