Whilst Pixar might not quite carry the guarantee of quality which they once did after the underwhelming Good Dinosaur and a couple of outright bad Cars films, they still harbour enough goodwill from their earlier successes and the recent Inside Out to generate a degree of excitement for a new release. It is reassuring then, for those who were worried that the computer animation innovators had somewhat lost their way, that Coco suggests this is not the case, even if it may not quite reach the heights of Inside Out.
Released in the U.K. several months after the U.S. and directed by Lee Unkrich, of Toy Story 3, Coco tells the story of the young aspiring musician Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), and his journey into the Land of the Dead to meet his idol, the legendary Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt). The animation, as expected from Pixar, is superb; The Land of the Dead is a colourful joy to behold. Even before this, however, the backgrounds of the streets of Mexico are so well animated as to appear almost photorealistic.
The first act of the story is slightly slow, with a lot of the set-up simply delivered in expository dialogue from the characters which can drag in places. Once we reach the Land of the Dead and Miguel meets the skeleton Hector (voiced by Gael García Bernal) however, the rest of the film speeds by at a surprisingly quick pace, which makes it all the more impressive that the story contains some relatively complex plot developments, none of which feel particularly forced or confusing.
In a first for Pixar, Coco could almost be considered a musical. Frozen and The Book of Mormon songwriters, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez provide the Oscar-nominated ‘Remember Me’ which runs throughout the film, as well as other songs performed by the characters at various points. Given that the plot of the film is largely tied to music, this isn’t particularly surprising and it ensures that none of the musical scenes feel forced, flowing naturally into the plot aided by a zippy score from Michael Giacchino. Because of this, Coco is probably the closest Pixar have come to making what feels like a Disney film in terms of tone. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it works quite well here – there is even a comedy animal sidekick in the form of Dante the dog, who manages to just about stay on the right side of irritating by way of not being overused purely for the sake of cheap laughs.
The message of the story runs throughout the film, and doesn’t feel forced or patronising by the end, reinforcing the view that Pixar manages to teach good lessons to its younger audience without feeling the need to talk down to them. As well as this, the story manages to embrace some darker themes of mortality throughout, made all the more impressive that this doesn’t affect the light, breezy tone of the rest of the film. This is counteracted by enough amusing moments for both young and old audiences to enjoy, ensuring that the film never feels too dark.
Another pleasing aspect of the film is the fact that various pieces of Mexican culture – most noticeably Día de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead – are not presented through any sort of lens to pander to American viewers. Instead, the film rightly assumes that the audience will understand, and the film doesn’t patronise either the audience or the culture it portrays. This is aided by the fact that, seemingly in response to recent Hollywood whitewashing claims, the voice cast is entirely Mexican, with the only exception being Pixar regular John Ratzenberger.
Coco may not reach Pixar’s heights quite as consistently as their earlier films, but this helps to establish that even an average Pixar film is still a treat to behold, and more impressive than 100 Emoji Movies. If the storytellers at Pixar can still deliver a fun, engaging story with a well-developed moral so seemingly effortlessly, then roll on The Incredibles 2.
Words by Adam Wells