2017 has been a weird year for a number of very obvious reasons, but there are some small peculiarities that just make things even stranger.
Take the Thanksgiving week releases at your local movie theater: Unless you’re in New York or Los Angeles and can get out to see Darkest Hour, your options are Dan Gilroy’s garbage Roman J. Israel, Esq. which you should only take your family to if you hate them, and the new Disney/Pixar joint Coco, which probably has already won the argument for what you’re going to be taking your kids to see this weekend.
Perhaps the studios, anticipating a Justice League swell that never truly mobilized, left this weekend to WB and Disney to slug it out for the favor of the American family who are willing to abandon the comforts of home for whatever reason (the utter horror of Washington playing the Giants on Thanksgiving evening providing a pretty good reason to get the fuck out tbh). Let’s be totally clear, though: Coco, with its lush imagery and wonderful cast, is a significantly better — well, everything — than Justice League, and is a truly sweet little film. It’s a no-brainer, honestly, and it’s perfectly programmed alongside the Thanksgiving holiday, with its messages about family and forgiveness.
One Dia de los Muertos, Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a boy astonishingly not named Coco, decides to set out and accomplish his one true dream in life — to become a musician — by playing a small talent show in the square of his small town in Mexico. He’s a talented young guitarist, having learned how to play from watching videos of his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a long-dead singer and guitarist who came from the same small town. Miguel has done this in secret, using a guitar that he’s built himself, because his family hates music, much in the same way that John Lithgow did in Footloose, but without the moral righteousness. They’re angry because, a long time ago, Miguel’s great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife and daughter (named Coco!) to pursue his dream of becoming a musician, and they’d never see him again. And Miguel has good reason to believe that his great-great-grandfather might actually be de la Cruz.
So, after an argument that sees his guitar destroyed by his grandmother (Renee Victor), Miguel runs off to find a guitar that he can use for the talent show, and the only one he can find is the one that lies in de la Cruz’s mausoleum. He steals the guitar, and is somehow in the process transformed into a spirit, and he’s forced to cross over into the spirit world alongside some of his long-dead ancestors and the most adorable Pixar dog since Dug in order to find his way back to the land of the living. Along the way, he’ll discover truths about himself and his family, and help a man named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who’s in danger of being forgotten entirely by the world of the living, with his troubles.
It’s a somewhat complicated story, especially for younger viewers unfamiliar with the culture, but the Pixar braintrust (including director Lee Unkrich) is able to pull it off well enough so that it doesn’t drag. There are enough hooks here for anyone to find a compelling way into the story, but it also doesn’t feel like it’s been focus-grouped to death. To put it plainly, all this fodder is an effective and efficient vehicle for the real treat: The imagery. Visually speaking, Coco is an absolute wonder, and, as usual with Pixar, it’s in the details that they’re able to capture that the film really begins to shine. Sure, the Land of the Dead looks incredible when you first see it, a parade of neon-spackled stacks of buildings and the fluorescent spirit animals that fly about it, but there are small touches that are even more impressive. A shot of two glasses, left on a table after a poignant moment, looks almost photorealistic, and I found myself perpetually impressed with the textures of the bone in close-up, like when Bernal’s character caresses a picture of particular import to him. That blend of cartoon wonder and immense graphical skill, in an odd way, has been Pixar’s best success, technical or otherwise, over the last couple of years (excluding the true-blue modern masterpiece Inside Out). It’s just astounding to think that one would walk out of a large and lively musical thinking of glasses, but hey, that’s the magic that helps the Mouse keeps the lights on.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this film is a more significantly traditional musical, as so much of the advertising outside of the television spots has been dedicated to how Unkrich and company accurately captured the guitar-playing that goes on in the film. It’s not, though there are a couple of big numbers (and one teased Frida Kahlo-themed dance that I’m actually angry didn’t make it fully into the final half-hour in a more significant way), but it feels like the movie occasionally operates with its hand tied behind its back.
At times, especially during the songs, Coco feels burdened by the English language, where the poetics fall flat in a particularly American way; it’s the rare Hollywood film that feels like it should have been subtitled (I would absolutely love to see the Spanish-language version of the film). That’s not a particular slight against the talented voice cast that Unkrich has assembled, who do a swell job translating Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich’s script with soulfulness and vigor. Bernal does particularly good work here, especially within his one standout song, in which he serenades a fellow ghost, played by Edward James Olmos, as he fades out of existence, and he’s also able to sell a mid-film twist with little more than a slight quiver in his voice.
He’s an essential component of the sweetness that holds the film together, and that, coupled with the setting, proves to be Coco’s separating element from the rest of the Pixar oeuvre. It’s significantly less complicated thematically than, say, Ratatouille, and it’s more along the lines of something like The Good Dinosaur, where Pixar stretched a tech demo into an odd-as-fuck two hour cartoon western. It’s not nearly as scattershot as that film was, but the intense stakes of something like Inside Out or Finding Dory are missing, which is in its own way a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you’re not going to have the adrenaline spikes or the utterly devastating lows that those particular films contained, but on the other, you’re going to have something that you can show small children without them being terrified or too upset by the content in front of them.
As far as the cultural sensitivities surrounding the film’s subject matter go, I really can’t speak to the specifics of its accuracy, but its overwhelming success in Mexico should provide enough potential proof to ward off that kind of criticism. Its setting never feels oppressively patronizing to its audience nor self-serious enough to rob it of its joy, and Coco is, at its core, a celebration of its culture.
It’s a fascinating new step for the particular Pixar formula, showing how well it can blend with Disney’s musical culture on top of everything else; there’s not too much separating this film from Moana, frankly, and that’s a good thing, since, if the brands must collide for the circle to hold, this is perhaps the best possible start. Even more, in a year defined by ugliness and strife on a political level between our two nations, it’s nice to see that good cinema can still break down the walls that separate us and allow for unity and celebration of a vital culture. And that, after all, may be Coco’s greatest success.