Perhaps I am dead inside but I can’t scrub free the feeling that Coco hits all the right notes but still feels like the same old song. Pixar, the studio responsible for such masterpieces of modern animation as Wall-E, Toy Story, Up and Monsters Inc., appears more than ever to have sold out, peddling mediocre stories lathered in an admittedly marvelous coat of digital paint. We all knew this day was coming at some point, Disney’s acquisition of the once smallish, creatively independent studio renowned for delivering one stunner after another a warning sign of impending doom. I remember an age where I used to anticipate a new Pixar film just as much as a new Batman film. My how the times have changed. Pixar has quite simply become formulaic and Coco, while charming, loaded with delightful music and animated with the immaculate medium-pressing precision that Pixar is known for, just feels rote.
I can’t stop thinking about a featurette that accompanied Up where John Lasseter talked passionately about the origins of Pixar. An almost bohemian collective of ambitious storytellers and masterful animators, they had mapped out ten stories. One about toys that came to life in the absence of humans. The story of a rat who becomes an unlikely chef. A robot left to do janitorial work on an abandoned Earth. A widower traversing the glove to fulfill his dead wife’s dream. These were the films that spanned from the first Toy Story to Up and made up the decade of Pixar’s Kingdom.
If animated Disney movies claimed the crown of animation in the 90s (fun fact: they did), Pixar very much owned the market – for audiences and critics alike – up until that final initial idea made its way across the finish line. And then – poof! Genius no more. Sure there have still been some gems that followed up (Toy Story 3 and Inside Out are some of the very best Pixar has ever offered) but they were stuck between relative duds like Brave, The Good Dinosaur and a slew of unnecessary sequels the likes of Monsters University and Finding Dory. In the wake of increasing sequelitis, Lasseter and the Pixar company assuaged the fears of fans: for every sequel there too would be a new original property feature. They had not gone creatively bankrupt in the shadow of Disney, they claimed. What they forgot to mention – these original movies weren’t necessarily going to be all that great.
Which brings us back to Coco, the story of a young musician who travels through the land of the dead so that he can make it back home and be a musician. If I’m making it seem like Coco starts and ends in just about the same place, that’s because that’s pretty much exactly what occurs. Anthony Gonzalez voices Miguel, a talented pint-sized guitarist and singer who has the misfortune of coming from a family that detests music. You see, Miguel’s great-great-grandfather abandoned the Rivera family to seek out fame as a musician and every since the Riveras have made a point of stomping out music wherever it may rear its harmonious head. Miguel’s obsession with his country’s most famous and beloved performer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) has him at odds with his music-hating family, leading him to run away to “seize the moment” (the exact phraseology chiseled into Ernesto’s grave) and accidentally winding up cursed and living amongst the dead. Pairing up with rascally skeleton Hector (Gael García Bernal), Miguel embarks on a spirit journey through an undead city, where he must hone his musical skills to get closer to his idol and uncover discoveries about his family that he never could anticipate.
Lee Unkirk, who initially pitched the idea and directed the film, does a grand job of appropriating Mexican heritage, supplanting Dia de Muertos into the fabric of the film as more than just an aesthetic launching point or interesting cultural backdrop. The bright splashes colors and bony, sinew-free skeleton characters make for sparkly eye-candy, sure, but Unkirch and co-writers Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich bake the traditions, terminology and a good dose of actual español into the story too, making a mainstream kid’s film that feels to its very core beholden to and respectful of Mexican culture. In that regard, Disney and Pixar have done largely right.
The flip side to that coin? The fact that Disney tried to literally trademark the term “Dia de Los Muertos” (look it up, it’s true.) It stands repeating, Disney wanted to take an ancient Mexican tradition, buy the rights to it and slap it across lunch boxes with an exclusivity clause. If that doesn’t make you cringe, perhaps the fact that the very Mexican cartoonist who originally called out Disney for cultural appropriation was later brought onboard the project as a consultant (read: lots of hush money and wide-smile press ops) will.
Assembling a voice cast that includes most of the famous Latino people gigging around Hollywood (but sadly lacking in the Clifton Collins Jr. department), the aforementioned Benjamin Bratt, Gael García Bernal and Edward James Olmos, Gabriel Iglesias and even Cheech Marin help lend Coco cultural authenticity. But these aren’t memorable characters by and large, especially when compared to some of Pixar’s great endeavors. Even the customary Disney animal sidekick – in this case a flea-ridden street dog with an autonomous tongue – makes a throwaway impression at best. Pixar’s willingness to return to the well (Coco has a dash of many former Pixar films, none so much as Ratatouille) leaves the characters to interact in mostly predictable manners with little that occurs in Coco unable to really shake free this feeling of familiarity.
The usual beats are hit and the importance of family is harped on but none of these characters really grow. The lack of real adversity is notable and doesn’t help to ever raise the literal life-or-death stakes to levels where we’re ever nervous about the well-being of these characters while the story itself just isn’t much more than your run-of-the-mill there and back again saga. That being said, the songs are great. Sublime even. Kristen Anderson-Lopez has made music that trumps Coco’s story at every endeavor, the soul of the film living and thriving in the heat of her songs. And even though the story lacks and completely missing is that Pixar spark of originality that cannot be replicated, Unkirk’s telling of the story is adroit and at times powerful. Emotions swell when Anderson-Lopez’s songs take center stage even if Coco did not loose a tear from these eyes (and I am the first to admit that a good Pixar flick usually shakes free at least a tear or two from me) but the comedic parts are more likely to induce a faint grin than an actual laugh. And if I’m not crying or laughing in a Pixar movie, can we really even call it a Pixar movie anymore?
CONCLUSION: ‘Coco’ by most accounts is a well-made film; the animation is wowing, the songs are full of life and love and it tells a heart-warming story, but it also feels like Pixar finally acknowledging that they’ve run out of steam. The there-and-back-again story is familiar and kind of dull, the characters fail to make much of an impression and it misses out on the high marks for overwhelming emotion and disarming comedy that Pixar was once known for. All in all, a lower wrung Pixar entry story-wise aided by excellent animation and memorable music.