Aspiring musician Miguel, confronted with his family's ancestral ban on music, enters the Land of the Dead to find his great-great-grandfather, a legendary singer.
When I first heard about this film years ago, I was both excited — it’s from Lee Unkrich who’s been with Pixar since Toy Story and really delivered great stories — and hesitant — what’s exciting about Dia de Muertos? Coco just hit Netflix so I was finally able to see last year’s Oscar-winning Best Animated Feature and of course it was delightful. Early on I realized that my framing of Coco as “How can Pixar tell a compelling story about Dia de Muertos” was completely wrong. I should’ve been thinking, “What will Pixar do to craft this film?”
Even in some of my less well-liked Pixar films like Brave and The Good Dinosaur, the creative machine always delivers impactful and well-told stories, and that’s what Coco shines at as well. Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is the skeleton of the film, but the glue (or muscles to keep with my anatomical analogies) that holds everything together is Miguel Rivera’s (Anthony Gonzalez) journey of self-discovery. In the Land of the Dead he meets old relatives, exhibits his passion for music, and throughout the film realizes the importance of family and what his family means to him. As can be expected from a film about family, love, and loss (and from the tear-factory that is Pixar), you’ll experience a wide range of emotions watching Coco; sadness being chief among them but I think more so than other Pixar films, happiness and hope are closely tied to that sadness. Part of what you learn about Dia de Muertos celebrations is that they are times to remember those you have lost and to let them live again through stories and memories. Basically, my hesitation about Day of the Dead being a good idea for a movie was 100% wrong.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the story and the characters, Coco was a bit lacking in the “film”-ic department. One could argue these critiques are really story-based, but in my mind I don’t view it that way. My problems reside in the flow of the film, an energy that was missing for large swaths of time. It’s kind of an out-of-body-like experience and hard to describe. Individual scenes in the film were great, but the larger acts and film as a whole was devoid of that “Wow” factor so-to-speak. I think it’s a combo of editing, directing, and cinematography that gave the film its ho-hum impression; a sense of deja vu. You really see this in the chase scenes (Miguel escaping the police, Miguel running away from his Mama Imelda and her spirit guide) as well as the party scene towards the end of the film. It feels like filler, included just to meet some criteria on a checklist. There isn’t a lot of it, but the little there is seems to disproportionately affect the pace of the film.
I probably relied too heavily on comparing Coco to other Pixar films and that’s not really fair to Coco. Lee Unkrich did an amazing job and Coco really can stand on its own, tugging at heart strings and playing with your imagination as only the best of them can. Parts of the film do drag, and it did impact my enjoyment of the film, but nowhere near close enough that I wouldn’t recommend watching it to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. It’s unique and slightly daring and the filmmakers pull it off.
4 out of 5