Well, that’s more like it. As someone who has written at some length about the decline of Pixar Animation Studios since its acquisition by Disney, I am especially pleased to be proven wrong, even if only intermittently. The studio’s latest release, Coco, is one such occasion.
Though Pixar has never acknowledged as much publicly, its cinematic philosophy (and business model) has shifted notably: Where the studio once aspired to excellence with every single picture—Pixar president Ed Catmull wrote an entire book expressing this ideal, Creativity, Inc.—it now seems content to roll out a few profitable, hyper-merchandise-friendly sequels for every genuinely original feature it unveils. (To put it another way, the studio has shifted away from “creativity” and toward “inc.”)
But if Finding Dory and Cars 3 are the price we must pay for a film such as Coco, then so be it. Pixar’s latest is up there with Inside Out among the studio’s best features in years—less complex than Pete Docter’s 2015 film, but perhaps a tad more emotionally resonant.
Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old boy in Mexico whose greatest desire in life is to be a musician like his idol, the mid-century legend Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Alas, Miguel’s great-great-grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband, and the Rivera family has enforced an iron-clad policy against music ever since. Instead, each subsequent generation has gone into the family business of making shoes. (Shades of Hermey, the toy-making elf who wished to become a dentist.)
But could it be that de la Cruz was in fact Miguel’s long since written-off great-great-grandfather? That certainly appears to be the case. So in order to participate in a music competition on Día de Muertos, Miguel “borrows” de la Cruz’s famous guitar, his own having been smashed earlier in the day by his grandmother. But with the very first strum, Miguel is transported to the Land of the Dead. There, he meets departed members of his own family and ultimately, with the help of a trickster named Héctor (Gael García Bernal), de la Cruz himself.
Directed by longtime Pixarian Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3), the tale that unfolds from these beginnings is not terribly innovative (less so, for instance, than 2014’s similarly themed though less well-realized The Book of Life). But it is a tale told with considerable wit—this is one of Pixar’s funniest films—and genuine tenderness. There are a few nice twists and reversals along the way. And while the movie’s conclusion is not difficult to see coming, anyone whose heart is not warmed by it may wish to consult with an cardio-therapist.
Befitting its subject, this is the most musical feature yet produced by Pixar, with songs co-written by Robert Lopez, of The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q, and Frozen fame. There are clever pop-cultural nuggets scattered throughout: a Mac Plus that is condemned as a “devil box” and smashed with a shoe; a gatehouse between the lands of the living and the dead that bears a distinct resemblance to the entrance to Disneyland; a hilariously avant-garde stage show put on by a deceased Frida Kahlo.
But where Coco shines most brightly—literally—is in its vibrant visuals, which rely on a palette of fluorescent greens, blues, yellows, and oranges. In this telling, the Land of the Dead is not a fearsome place, but rather a never-ending skeleton party conducted in a glorious multi-tiered city that rises from sea-level houseboats to vast, imperious towers inhabited by celebrities such as de la Cruz—all of them connected by arched bridges and aerial trams.
Does Coco rise to the heights of Pixar’s very best work? No. But it is a generous, heartfelt film, full of color and music, one that offers a timely Thanksgiving tribute to the intergenerational importance of family. Its very title lovingly derives from the name of Miguel’s oldest living relative, great-grandmother Mamá Coco, whose importance to the story only becomes clear late in the film.
I wish the movie suggested that all was now well with Pixar, but warning signs are, if anything, multiplying. The studio’s next two films will be sequels, Incredibles 2 and an utterly heretical “franchise reboot,” Toy Story 4. With Coco, even the customary delight of a Pixar short before the movie is missing: In its place is “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure,” which whatever its quality (it did not screen for critics) suggests that the studio is being ever-more subsumed into its Disney parent. And the interlocking news stories that Pixar guru John Lasseter is going on leave due to alleged inappropriate behavior and that Rashida Jones left Toy Story 4 over issues of diversity are depressing on almost every level imaginable.
But those are issues to be addressed in the days to come. In the meantime, my advice is to round up the family, take them to Coco, and together give thanks.