For their first ten films, Pixar could do almost nothing wrong. Pixar films became important cultural experiences, introducing new characters and worlds into the lexicon of film history that were instant classics. Then the sequels started coming. Pixar lost some of its magic, and the original projects like Brave and The Good Dinosaur didn’t hold the same spark the studio once had. Occasionally, they would fall back into their old patterns with Inside Out, but those refreshing new ideas have become increasingly rare over the years.
Coco – along with Inside Out, Pixar’s best original property since Up – is unique enough, but also relies on the films of Pixar past to reignite that passion. Considering Coco is largely a film about remembering the past and paying homage to those that came before, this could’ve come off as a bug, but instead works as a feature.
Miguel Riviera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is the protagonist of Coco, a music-loving kid who adores his town’s hero, the musician-film star, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Miguel’s family has banned music from their house for close to a century, when Miguel’s great-great-grandfather abandoned the family to pursue his career in music and never looked back. When his family isn’t looking, Miguel practices his guitar, watching Ernesto’s old films and mimicking his finger-picking style.
For the town’s Día De Muertos celebration, Miguel wants to enter a talent competition, but his family discovers Miguel’s intentions and breaks his guitar. Miguel’s only option is to steal the guitar of Ernesto, and his theft causes him to fall into the world of the dead. In order for Miguel to return to his home of Santa Cecilia, he must find his deceased family and have them bless him by day’s end, or Miguel will also become one of the dead.
Pixar films are full of kids abandoning their parent’s wishes, from Remy’s decision to become a cook in Ratatouille to The Incredibles children attempting to make the superhero business a family matter. It’s hard not to think of Pixar’s past films, and various elements from their twenty-two years of features, when watching Coco. Even in Coco’s most wondrous moment, where Miguel first sees the gorgeously illuminated land of the dead, reminds heavily of Flik’s visit to the big city in A Bug’s Life. Since Coco is a celebration of life, both taking hold of the life one has and remembering those who have past, the decision to play like an homage to Pixar’s illustrious history is a nice addition, instead of making Coco feel uninspired and a mishmash of old ideas.
Directed by long-time Pixar alum Lee Unkrich (director of Toy Story 3), along with co-director Adrian Molina, the film succeeds in rekindling that Pixar magic, even if it takes a while to get there. Coco somewhat works like Back to the Future, as Miguel tries to return to his world before fading away, but also becomes a mystery when Miguel believes that Ernesto might actually be his great-great-grandfather. It’s not Miguel’s arrival in the vibrant land of the dead that does it, but when the film focuses on the relationship between Miguel and Hector (Gael García Bernal), a mysterious loner who is attempting to visit the Land of the Living. Again, this unusual, mismatched friendship reminds of literally every film in the Pixar canon, but the emotional heft of this relationship as the film continues is Pixar at the peak of their emotive powers. It’s no surprise at this point that Pixar can turn its audience to tears at their whim, but still, Coco’s final act is surprisingly emotional, considering the joyous journey that has preceded it. Pixar can still seamlessly integrate emotional heft into their films, ever so sneakily and wallop the audience unexpectedly.
Coco takes a bit to get going, but once it does, it reminds of the glory days of Pixar’s best. As with Toy Story 3, Unkrich knows that the bond between characters is where the true gratification comes in Pixar films, and the way he grows that connection with Coco is among some of the company’s finest work in years. Coco might owe quite a bit to Pixar’s past, but it’s also a wonderful example that the studio’s talents and gifts to animation can still at times be as strong as they ever have been.