Like most 20-somethings these days, Pixar is struggling through some growing pains on the way to becoming a fully independent adult. The studio would like to keep its reputation as the place where auteur animators bring stories to life and fill theaters with tears.
But Pixar has struggled to do just that whenever auteurs aren’t one of the founding directors of the studio — or working on a sequel to a movie by one of the founding directors of the studio. Or when that director isn’t Brad Bird, who took more than a decade to return to the most obvious sequel-bait franchise in Pixar’s stable, The Incredibles. Being able to move beyond the creative work of its founders will determine whether Pixar is a studio in this for the long haul, or just a very successful and long-lived project from John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft.
Coco, from veteran Pixar director Lee Unkrich and long-time Pixar animator Adrian Molina (the two share co-director credit) isn’t that mythical movie, the foundation of a new franchise to rival Monsters, Inc. or Toy Story. It doesn’t reach the emotional heights of stand-alones like Up or WALL-E, either.
But it’s a tidy, endearing story with a beautiful, well-realized aesthetic, and marquee billing for culture that doesn’t get a lot of that in American media.
Coco’s production has been dogged by twin scandals. The first was when Disney attempted to trademark “Dia de los Muertos,” the film’s working title. Of course, that’s also the name of an actual holiday, and the claim was greeted with understandable outcry from the Mexican and Mexican-American communities that celebrate it. Disney backed down.
Controversy struck again when fans of the film The Book of Life reacted to similarities between Coco and the 2014 brainchild of Mexican and Mexican-American writers and artists, accusing Disney of idea theft. The timeline of film production doesn’t quite work out: Pixar was first pitched the idea for Coco months before The Book of Life was pitched to Dreamworks. But both films use an aesthetic based on Dia de los Muertos iconography and the power of music as a central theme, and both have guitar-playing musicians as lead characters who cross over into the Land of the Dead.
Lots of folks jumped to the conclusion of Disney as the corporate bad guy — an assumption made all the easier by the company’s trademark attempt. Now that Coco is finally out in the world, it can be said plainly: There’s not a lot of similarity to the story of Coco and The Book of Life.
Coco opens with exposition by, what else, paper cutout, in which we are swiftly introduced to no less than five generations of the Rivera family and our young protagonist, Miguel. Miguel’s dilemma is classically Disney: He wants to sing and play the guitar, but his family — overseen by his Abuelita with an iron chancla — are staunchly anti-musician. The Rivera stance on music dates back to Abuelita’s grandfather, who abandoned his wife and child in order to pursue a career as a singer and was stricken from family lore as a result.
Eventually, Coco reaches the nugget of its hero’s journey: Miguel has crossed over to the Land of the Dead and must return to the Land of the Living before dawn or reside there forever. In order to do that, he must gain the blessing of a dead member of his family. But even his dead family, united in fear of Mama Imelda, his music-hating great-great-grandmother, refuse to give it unless he swears to give up his dreams. (And no wonder, as she commands a massive spirit guide who takes the form of a totally bitchin’, day-glo, winged jaguar.)
In order to have his dreams and eat them too, Miguel decides to seek out the spirit of the man he believes to be his estranged great-great grandfather, the famous singer and movie star, Ernesto de la Cruz. In his quest, Miguel enlists the help of a clever calaca named Hector, who has his own reasons for agreeing to help.
As you can tell by the fact that it took me three paragraphs to describe the start of the plot of Coco, it takes quite a bit of setup to get us into the bulk of the film. The beginning does breeze past in an enjoyable way, but still leaves the first act of the movie feeling a little aimless.
But it’s easy to stop thinking about that once we’re inside the Land of the Dead, where the bulk of Coco’s action takes place. Pixar certainly isn’t the first entity to discover the aesthetic pleasures of Dia de los Muerto;, plenty of college kids on a semester abroad have gotten there before, but the world feels rich and coherent and is a joy to look at.
The Land of the Dead is a lot like Disney World, but with skulls instead of hidden Mickeys. I can already see the Coco renovation of Epcot Mexico, and I’m not even really that upset about it. The creative liberties taken with the bodily physics of a whole city of skeleton people is a consistently surprising delight. (Coco also hides a delightful recurring cameo from a certain famous Mexican pintora.)
Unlike a lot of Pixar films before it, Coco feels like a movie that was built script first, rather than storyboards first. Which isn’t to say that building an animated movie from storyboards is a terrible technique, but that it tends to craft movies without a clear narrative goal. The first 10 minutes of Up and half hour of WALL-E are fantastic short films — but I defy anybody to convince me that they care much about the rest of the plot.
But Coco lacks the purity of character arc that supports Pixar’s best work. Miguel’s evolution takes a backstage to the drama of his extensive — and entertaining — family. It’s not bad that we wind up caring about the stakes of his ancestors’ afterlives, but it’s not great that we sort of care about their dreams more than we do about the main character’s.
In the end, it’s not Miguel who evolves to solve his own problems, but his family who evolves around him, almost as if Coco has chosen the wrong lead character (or characters) to focus on.
But these are small quibbles for all-ages film — Coco is a cheerful, endearing and visually rich family movie, and like all of the best Pixar has to offer, has a (very spoilery) scene that will leave theaters awash with tears. You could do a lot worse, on this Thanksgiving weekend, than taking a chance on it.