Movie Reviews: Coco (2017)

Editor’s Note: There was no review of the universally beloved Frozen short (watch tomorrow night on ABC!) because your writer intentionally waited until it was removed from prints of this film because he’s a monster.

I debated internally for a while about making this review.  For one, it is a film targeting kids and families and since your writer aged out of the former years ago (suffering from early onset old man syndrome) and to his knowledge has no children to speak of.  The phrase “this isn’t for you” rattles in my head often during these kinds of films when I start to get annoyed at certain points.  The second is that Pixar films fall into that sweet spot of “too beloved to criticize” and “bait for people to prove how ‘cool’ they are by saying they don’t like them” that leaves any review facing one or both groups of awful responses.  But your reviewer didn’t get to the point in his life where he’s seeing a family movie by himself in an otherwise empty theater by caring what other people think, so here’s a second straight review for something that’s already been seen by just about everyone who intended to see it.

Another related reason I didn’t want to review this and was in no rush to see Coco was that Pixar just hasn’t been the same for me.  I’m pretty neutral to disinterested in the early, generally beloved Pixar titles but starting with 2004’s The Incredibles, five of their next six films (also including Ratatouille, WALL-EUp, and Toy Story 3) are classics and I’d also call them their five best films (I’ve never seen a Cars movie, so this isn’t an indictment of any of them).  Since then however, their slate has been dominated by mediocre films (Brave, Monsters University, and The Good Dinosaur) and sequels I have no interest in seeing (Cars 2, Finding Dory, and Cars 3).  Inside Out is the one standout title from this period, but it still left me staring at the intended to be humorous sections thinking “this is not for me”.

So, when I say that Coco is the best film since that classic era, it was overcoming some built-in ambivalence.  I’d still only say the film only got one big laugh out of me (in a perfectly timed bit of black comedy involving a bell), and a few chuckles, but it also only drew a few groans (mostly thanks to that very Pixar dog and skeleton based physical gags) as Pixar’s take on the Mexican Day of the Dead was a delight.  Perhaps not coincidentally, it was also helmed by Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich.

The requisite all-star cast is here with relative newcomer Anthony Gonzalez (in the lead role as Miguel) supported by Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Edward James Olmos, Jamie Camil (Jane the Virgin which would make for a perfect companion piece to this with its themes of family and Latino culture), Natalia Cordova-Buckley (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D), and as required, a small role by Cheech Marin, but many of those are smaller parts.  Aside from the unmistakable Camil, the vocal performances never stood apart from the characters and are all very well done.

The story which tells of a boy who runs away from his music hating home and in an attempt to steal a guitar to play in a talent show, is accidentally transported to the world of the dead (it makes more sense in context) on Día de los Muertos.  While the magic realism of the story is likely more palatable to audiences then what I had assumed happened (I naïvely thought the kid was gonna get to the land of the dead by dying and was disappointed this wasn’t the case), it is also very well handled artistically and thematically.  Miguel must get back to the world of the living by sunrise by getting the blessing of his ancestors.  I could detail the rest of the plot but I neither wish to spoil or waste my time.  It’s a Pixar movie, just fill in the blanks.

If you’re looking for the emotional impact, Coco delivers.  It’s a Pixar film and if there is one thing they know how to do it is tug your heartstrings.  What it does however is make that feel more natural then their most recent titles and saves the big emotional play for the denouement.

If you’re looking for the visual impact, Coco delivers.  It’s a Pixar film and if there is one thing I thought they knew how to do it was craft increasingly more beautiful and detailed worlds, but then I saw The Good Dinosaur.  The film just has some a beautiful color palette especially in all the blues of the night-set World of the Dead.  The town design feels almost Seussian with the way levels seen to be stacked unevenly and over each other in a remarkably complex and colorful fashion.  The human characters which have long been a Pixar design weak point look better than they ever have before (both in alive and skeletal form) in the way they balance realistic and cartoonish.  The older characters feel even more real with Miguel’s great-grandmother at times looking like you could reach out and touch her.  The recurring imagery of the petals is cheesy as hell, but they are at least woven in tightly with the story and mostly walk that thin line between pretty and goofy.

If you’re looking for a comparison to The Book of Life, you know the 2014 computer animated musical fantasy film about the Day of the Dead featuring a son dealing with the expectations of his family to join the family business when he desires to be a musician, the biggest difference is that Coco doesn’t suck.  It looks better, has a better story, more erudite references (Frida Kahlo vs. the pop culture references of The Book of Life) and most importantly, has better music.  Instead of awful and embarrassing covers of popular music, it has a few original songs that sound far more appropriate and are far more pleasing to the ears.  I don’t care if Coco ripped off The Book of Life or not (the similarities are surface deep, but it is a wide surface), but this is the right way to rip something off if it did.

What makes a review like this feel pointless and what I didn’t mention before is that I could have summed most of this up as “Coco is a Pixar film”.  For most people that is going to say everything that needs to be said (for or against) and it does fit neatly into their oeuvre.  The real question is for those few undecideds “Is Coco a Pixar film from the era when they dominated animated films in the critical eye?” to which the answer is “probably, but even if it isn’t, it sure is close”.