At this point, Pixar is practically a genre.
There are both advantages and disadvantages to that. The advantage is that the various filmmakers who make up the larger Pixar family have built a creative environment for themselves that gives them room to work and create, and they have the support of this amazing machine behind them. The disadvantage is that after a certain amount of time, a familiarity sets in that can be hard to combat. All a filmmaker can really do in a case like that is make the best possible film and set all those other things aside, because success can become a coffin if you’re not careful.
When you look at the films that Lee Unkrich has worked on as either director or co-director, it’s clear that Pixar trusts him when the stakes are high. Toy Story was more than just a hit for the studio; it was the film that proved they could do it, the film that established the entire market for computer animated feature films. It was a milestone. Making a sequel to it was incredibly important to the studio’s overall fortunes. They had to prove it wasn’t an accident. If anything, Toy Story 2 was deeper and richer than the first film, and when Toy Story 3 managed to do it again, it seemed almost impossible. We’re so conditioned to expect sequels to observe the law of diminishing returns that it’s bizarre when they don’t. And even for a studio that is used to landing big emotional punches in movies, Unkrich’s work stands out, and films like Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. feature direct, amazing moments that pierce the viewer’s heart. Think of that remarkable shot of Sully when he opens the door and sees the off-screen Boo as she says that single word: “Kitty!” Or think of those silent cuts near the end of Finding Nemo when Marlin flashes on that single egg. Hell, the single most powerful moment in any Pixar film for me so far comes near the end of Toy Story 3, when the toys are in the incinerator and, for just a moment, Unkrich actually convinced me that the film might end with those toys all meeting that fate together.
Coco is a high-wire act, especially in the more culturally-sensitive times we live in, because it is set in Mexico and deals largely with the traditions around Día de Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead. Adrian Molina, who has been at Pixar for a decade now, makes his debut as co-writer and co-director here, and the film plays as a loving tribute to Mexican culture, not a wholesale appropriation of it. The film is carefully plotted, lovingly detailed, and deeply felt, telling the story of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy from a family long-established as shoemakers. There’s a backstory to that choice of profession, though. Miguel’s great-great grandmother, Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach), was married to a musician who abandoned her to chase his dreams. Their daughter is now Miguel’s ancient great-grandmother Mamá Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía), the last living connection to the story of how Imelda picked herself up after the musician left and she learned a trade that would provide for her daughter. Now the entire family participates in the tradition, and they all also go along with Imelda’s most important rule: no music at all.
So guess what Miguel wants to be. Go ahead. Guess. I’ll wait.
Yes, like a rat who wants to be a gourmet chef or a princess who wants to be a warrior or a world full of sentient cars that wants to make sense, Miguel wants to be a musician. He feels it deep down inside. He idolizes a great Mexican singer and movie star, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), and he’s convinced that he can win his family over if they just hear him perform. His family is so focused on their past, though, that things come to a head on Día de Muertos when he accidentally messes up the family’s ofrenda, the private altar where you put the photos of the people you’re remembering as well as the offerings you leave for them. It’s a lovely tradition, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s a fairly recent one. It has roots in much older celebrations or rituals, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that Mexico really adopted it as a national event. The film takes that basic idea and then builds a mythology around it that we get to see close up when Miguel makes a choice that somehow leads to him flipping into the Land of the Dead while still alive. He is trapped, and the only way back is for one of his relatives to give him their blessing.
This is what Pixar does so well. They take an emotional idea as simple as “I wish my family would give me their blessing to do what I love,” and they find a way to turn that into a big sprawling adventure that externalizes that idea somehow. When they really crack the code, the results stick in a way that feels like it speaks directly to each audience member. They take very specific stories and they make them universal. If anything, that specificity is what makes them matter. You could tell this kind of story about any culture, but there is something beautiful about the details of this celebration and the way memory serves as a connection that strengthens family. While Miguel scrambles to gain his family’s blessing and track down his hero in the afterlife, he is joined by Hector (Gael García Bernal), who is in danger of being forgotten completely on Earth, and they make a strong duo. So many of Pixar’s movies are defined by that central pair, whether it’s Mike and Sully or Buzz and Woody or Dory and Marlin, and Miguel and Hector are played far more for the heart than the laugh. They also layer in references to Mexican pop culture like Santo, the wrestler, or Frida Kahlo, and even the most irreverent parts of the film still seem to come from a place of overwhelming affection for all of it.
When you talk about Pixar, though, you also have to acknowledge that there is no one anywhere pushing the actual tech behind animation forward the way Pixar does. It’s dazzling seeing just how far they’ve come, and before we even discuss the film’s remarkable art direction or photography, we have to acknowledge how beautiful and subtle their human work is these days. Think of the way the people looked in Toy Story, like the creepy next-door-neighbor kid. That’s a million miles from where they are now, and Mamá Coco in particular is a breathtaking example of character design pushed way past the simply “cartoony.” Likewise, the Land of the Dead, modeled in part on the city of Guanajuato, is a rich and vibrant design, rendered to a degree that is mind-boggling. At any point during Miguel’s time in the Land of the Dead, you can see what feels like hundreds of thousands of buildings and people in every direction. It’s overwhelmingly pretty, and the film credits two different directors of photography. It makes sense. Danielle Feinberg is the DoP for lighting, and Matt Aspbury is the DoP for camera. Feinberg’s work seems like an incredible magic trick, trying to figure out how to make this cacophony of light and color into something that makes sense and works for the story. Aspbury’s camera is loose and free, like there’s a handheld operator at times, and that physical, organic quality works to make everything feel real, no matter how stylized or fantastic.
When we talk about the ways that the familiar can detract from things, it happens for me most often when something is working at a high level and then suddenly hits a really obvious note. At one point, Miguel comes face to face with one of the skeleton inhabitants of the Land of the Dead, and in surprise, they open their mouth and their entire jawbone falls off. How many animated films… not just Pixar films, but animated film in general… have you see where they play a riff on that exact sight gag? Sometimes, it’s an animal pooping out something in surprise, like an egg, or sometimes, it’s someone dropping something, but it’s always that same basic joke. There is also a narrative shape here that, once you see the whole thing play out, will remind you of several other Pixar movies, and that may be the greatest weakness of the whole thing. It’s fine, but considering how well the emotional side of things works, it’s just frustrating to see them repeat themselves.
Since the film is so focused on music, it makes sense that they have some lovely music baked into it. Michael Giacchino’s score is vibrant and playful, and the songs by Robert Lopez & Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Germaine Franco are just as sweet and memorable as the characters say they are, something that is not always true when you see a movie about songwriting. That’s one of those things that sets my teeth on edge, and it should come as no shock that the Lopezes killed it with “Remember Me,” the most important song to the story.
If this was a first film by a team we’d never heard of, people would be doing cartwheels for it, but because it’s Pixar, it feels like what we expected. Family audiences are in good hands, and it will definitely speak to some people in a very direct way. If you’ve experienced loss in your family that you haven’t fully grappled with, this may lay you out. With nothing but sequels on the horizon for the studio, it’s important to see where Pixar is in terms of original storytelling, and while it’s a good (even occasionally very good) movie, the studio doesn’t seem to be innovating in the way they once did, and that feels like cause for concern.
The studio did not make the half-hour Olaf’s Frozen Adventure available for review.
Running time: 109 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic