Pixar Animation Studios’ latest film, Coco, follows 12-year-old Miguel as he dreams of becoming a successful musician, despite his family’s ban on music. Miguel embarks on an adventure through the Land of the Dead, accompanied by his skeleton relatives, as he attempts to uncover the truth behind his family’s history and prove to them his talent and passion.
Pixar films are widely beloved because they include a sense of realism in children’s stories. Pixar treats its audience with respect, whether through the animation work or character choices. The studio’s best films have managed to resonate not only with children but also adults, as its less favorable ones have heavily relied on childish humor and over-the-top situations to market to a specific demographic. Although director Lee Unkrich adds sincerity to Coco by paying respect to Mexican culture, he sometimes loses this genuineness due to the PG limitations of family-friendly films.
Pixar thrives on making complex and memorable character designs. However, Miguel, the film’s protagonist, is an overly simplified outline of circles and lines. The irony is that every other character’s animation is exceptional, each having distinctive details such as facial wrinkles or life-like clothing creases. Some are so impressive that, at certain points, one would swear they looked as close to real people as animation could make them. The skeletons in the world of the dead have varying shaped skulls and details like small chips that prevent them from looking like caricatures and easily reflect their familial connections to Miguel.
This desire to balance between a “realistic” and cartoon ambiance is also evident with the location designs. The buildings and plaza in the living world feel authentic to the culture, and little details like flower petals lying next to a curb greatly impact the atmosphere. The animators use these elements to showcase Pixar’s exceptional world-building capacity once again with the world of the dead, as the small space on screen is compacted with a multi-colored cityscape. However, if these extremely bright colors were toned down or blended with a few dull colors, the film would not be filling this heartfelt story set during Día de los Muertos with such tackiness.
Of course, the characters that live in both worlds need to be sincere to capture Pixar’s magic. The aggravating actions of major characters like Miguel and Hector, the Mexican trickster spirit who aids Miguel in his quest, are questionable at first but eventually, viewers will come to understand the relevance to their respective story arcs. The characters work best when they help each other through discipline or reasoning, as the viewers will understand all of their clearly defined motivations. When the film primarily focuses on one of them, such as Miguel’s abuelita, they can come across as annoying with their over-exaggerated movements and facial expressions, even though none of them feels completely out of place, overall.
All these characters are integral in creating a strong family connection, both in the worlds of the living and dead. While the film deals with these standard familial themes, it also uses the story to make thematic statements about the music industry. All of these themes combined help establish Miguel’s dilemma of wanting to become a musician when his family bans it because of broken relationships between family members and Miguel’s great-great grandfather. The film sets up many minor conflicts throughout the story and balances all of them very well. They seem trivial at first, but their “ticking clock” nature slowly creeps up on the viewers as they aimlessly wander around this vast and detailed world.
However, the film also relies on many predictable plot points, such as the two main characters temporarily parting ways, and character archetypes, but their inclusion is acceptable because they still push this story forward. Unfortunately, there are also moments, such as the side characters’ “silly” fight scene, that are so unnecessary that one will instantly know that they were included to abide by some proven algorithm for animated movies, as they drastically contrast with the rest of the story. Because the film tries to pay homage to Mexican culture, the use of childish slapstick is jarring, as it conflicts with the film’s intentions and disrupts its pace.
As pandering as this film got, though, it was an improvement from Unkrich’s last film, Toy Story 3, because the original ideas and genuine connection with the audience helped veer it away from being underwhelming. True to Pixar productions’ position at the forefront of storytelling through animation, Coco is astounding in its ever-improving design of people and landscapes. It doesn’t reach the incredible quality of Pixar’s past works like Finding Nemo or Up, but it’s a solid step forward.