Thanksgiving is a time for a lot of things, whether it’s spending time with family, sitting in traffic en route to spending that time with family, leaving family early Friday morning to fight for the rights of consumerism, or eating disgusting amounts of food. Another tradition of the time is the onslaught of kids’ animated films that tend to hit the theaters during this time, taking advantage of work and school holidays to give families a reason to head to the local multiplex. Disney has personally laid siege to the theaters during this time; you’d have to go as far back as 2011 to find a November that didn’t feature a major release from either the in-house Disney production company or Pixar, and their upcoming schedule shows release dates in the month held through 2021. The time is usually reserved for the main arm of Disney (the likes of Tangled, Frozen, Big Hero 6, Wreck-it Ralph and Moana have all hit theaters in and around Turkey Day), but this year, Pixar has taken over the slot with its 19th film, a Mexican heritage film modeled around the Day of the Dead, Coco.
In Coco, Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez) is a young boy in a small town born into a long line of music hating shoe-makers. Some past family trauma regarding a musician walking out on Miguel’s great grandmother has engendered a virulent hatred for all forms of music, forcing the boy to keep his love of local musical legend Ernesto De La Cruz hidden from the rest of his loved ones. As Dia De Los Muertos approaches, a series of events finds Miguel trapped in the Land of the Dead and on a mission to track down De La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) to get back to the land of the living and find out more information about his family. Along the way, Miguel meets Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a down-on-his-luck grifter trying to swindle his way back into the thoughts and minds of his family before they forget him and he winks out of existence.
First thing’s first, Coco looks gorgeous. From its papercraft storytelling during the opening credits to the lush design of the land of the dead and the creatures that inhabit it, Coco is a visual spectacle. It’s not unlike Jorge R. Gutierrez’s The Book of Life in that respect, a film that was also about musicians crossing over into the spirit realm during Dia De Los Muertos (on the face, the log lines of both films are remarkably similar). Coco benefits from Disney's bottomless resources and extra years of CG improvements, and goes for a more traditional computer animated style, while The Book of Life mixed in elements and designs that look more akin to stop motion, a shrewd design choice for how the story of that film played out. The similarities between the two films are surface level, but it’s fascinating that they ended up so close to each other when developed so far away. There’s a depth to the design of the characters and the world that shows respect for the culture and mores of Mexico (the creators are not Mexican, as was the case with The Book of Life, but Pixar brought in cultural consultants to bridge that gap), even if it has to cover a lot of ground setting up the world.
That’s the biggest knock against Coco, really. It takes quite a bit of time to get going. There’s quite a bit of table setting that needs to take place here, establishing Miguel’s family and their hatred of music, establishing the importance of Ernesto De La Cruz (both to Miguel and the town at large), establishing the rules surrounding Dia de Muertos on the living side of things, and then establishing everything all over again for the land of the dead. It’s an outrageous amount of exposition to get through for an hour and fifty minute movie, turning much of the opening 45 minutes to an hour into a bit of a slog. Luckily, once it’s all been set up and the story is free to move at its own pace, Coco starts to claim some of the magic that made Pixar the juggernauts that they have been for so long. The third act turns into a wonderful chase flick, with Miguel fighting against time to get back to his loved ones and uncover the truth behind both his family and his idol. The big twist is relatively easy to see coming if you’ve seen just about any movie in history, but the execution of it is excellent.
There’s no real avoiding that Pixar movies don’t feel like they used to. Maybe this is unfair, but they were unassailable for so long, and people change and tastes change and nothing lasts forever. Toy Story 3 was seven years ago, and the only Pixar film since then that’s come close to getting a slice of that magic was Inside Out. That’s one movie out of eight. Granted, Coco is probably the second best project Pixar’s done in this fallow period for the studio, but a film having the flaws of Coco being one of the better films of the period is a strong case of damning with faint praise. You can see that spark in the third act of the movie, where things coalesce in a really engaging, emotional and enjoyable way, but that doesn’t discount the clunkiness and over-exposition of the first hour. Coco is a crowd-pleaser, and it shows that Pixar can still flex its muscles from time to time, and it certainly ends strong, making you leave the theater with a smile. It’s possible that we’re faced with a Pixar that can’t fully satisfy anymore, save a few strong efforts here and there. Coco isn’t quite on the level of Inside Out or the films of its heyday, but there’s still more to like than dislike.