I’ve never met anyone who relies on their third act as much as Pixar. While their best films (Up, Toy Story and Toy Story 3, Inside Out) are perfect throughout, their moderate films usually let the first two thirds coast while building up to a gut-punch of a third act. Eventually, this dependence will end up failing them, but that day is not today. Coco is a fine film from beginning to end, but the final forty minutes or so will leave you completely and thoroughly emotionally wrecked, pushing the boundaries of what children’s films can be both visually and emotionally.
Many years ago, Miguel Rivera’s (Anthony Gonzalez) great-great-grandfather abandoned his family to follow his dream of being a musician. As a result, the matriarchs of his family have banned music from being mentioned, played, or honored in their household. Nevertheless, Miguel can’t help but love music, especially the works of his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). When his secret is discovered, harsh words are said, and misdeeds are committed on the Day of the Dead, Miguel finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead himself. Upon arriving, he meets with his deceased family members and sets out on a quest to find Ernesto de la Cruz in order to return home, with the aid of a trickster named Héctor (Gael Garcïa Bernal).
Before tackling the execution, it’s always good to take a step back and look at the themes that Pixar is working with, for they are always above and beyond the average studio. It is particularly evident here that the studio takes after Studio Ghibli, who approach their children’s films with the notion that kids are intelligent beings, and that film can help them deal with the emotions of life. This film is no exception, as Lee Unkrich has crafted a film designed to help children learn more about the role they play in the family, the importance of following your dreams, forgiveness, love, the dangers of hero worship, and ultimately, death. Unlike almost any film to come before, this film almost embraces the idea of death. Unlike Bambi or The Lion King, where death is treated as a great sorrow that burdens the audience, here death is almost a joyous celebration. The characters have already come to understand that death is a part of life, and the hope (and revelation) of the afterworld has provided a comfort for both them and the audience. It allows for a soothing discussion about death and allows for a subtler approach than, say, three notes and a gunshot (looking at you, Bambi). However, moreso than the film’s reassurance of the afterlife is the subtle metaphor – that regardless of what you believe about life after death, you can keep someone’s spirit alive through memory, storytelling, and yes, even art. Equally mature for a children’s film is the way it addresses hero worship. Coco takes on the idea of idolizing famous people and putting them on a pedestal and puts it in its place, creating a yarn about learning the truth about the personal lives of our heroes. It’s not a major theme, and Pixar certainly didn’t know at the time what would be happening when the film was released, but this is certainly a powerful message to be teaching kids in an age where celebrities, musicians, and politicians are being revealed to be scummy, horrible people in their personal lives. And then there’s the way the film addresses family. Yes, the idea of families fighting over not understanding their kid’s passion and then coming together is about as cliché as they come (Hell, The Jazz Singer dealt with this plot and that was the first sound film). However, as every Pixar film is wont to do, they add their own twist on it, and refuse to teach the predictable lesson. For one, it takes things to the extreme in the same vein as the best of satires. Oh, your movie has the family disapprove of the kid pursing art? Well, in this movie, the family hates it, considering it the curse of the Devil. And their final message chooses to forgo the average “Now I see how good you are so we’re all square” conclusion in order to embrace something smarter, something more real, and something more important: compromise. The best families don’t always get along, they fight and bicker as the parents want what’s best for their kids while the kids need the freedom to forge their own path, but they always make it work through compromise. Neither Miguel nor his Abuelita (or Mamá Imelda) are in the wrong here, but neither of them are totally right either. The family needs to learn that music can help deal with grief and keep memory alive, while Miguel needs to learn that those who worked their entire life to do right by those they love have lessons and wisdom to impart. It’s a strong, uplifting lesson that works in contrast to the similar films released each year.
Now, unfortunately, the first two-thirds of this film, while fine, do resort to a series of clichés. You can pretty much predict most of this portion of the film’s plot points beat for beat, with nothing really standing out as much of a shock. However, as you don’t have anything to dazzle you story-wise, it does allow you to focus on the technical aspects of what Unkrich is pulling off here. And that’s a good thing, because it really is wonderful. The visual aesthetic of the Land of the Death is stunning, and will literally take your breath away when you first see it. Unlike their last films, Coco chooses not to attempt photorealism, instead approaching a surrealist angle that creates vivid images of flower petals, flying creatures, and the greatest portrayal of Frida Kahlo the screen has ever held. However, this doesn’t mean there isn’t any sense of groundbreaking animation involved – some of the cinematography looks downright photographic. There’s a gorgeous shot inside a tunnel that seems incredibly specific to a filmmaker’s memory, as well as a shot of a full glass of tequila that not only looks real, but has a sense of weight to it in terms of what it represents. And don’t get me started on the portrayal of aging – the animation on each wrinkle on the great grandmother’s face is exquisite, as is the detail applied to Abuelita’s sagging skin under her arms. The portrayal of the skeletons feels fresh and inspired, so long as they aren’t detaching their arms to use as nunchucks (a gag that, sadly, happens twice in succession). And then there’s the music. The music in this film feels alive and vibrant, as it should in a film surrounding Mexican culture. Michael Giacchino worked with several Mexican songwriters, including Germaine Franco and Adrian Molina, in order to craft a fitting homage to the country’s vibrant musical scene, and it definitely pays off, both in terms of the score as well as passionate songs like “Everyone Knows Juanita” and the truly wonderful “Un Poco Loco.” However, the song you will truly remember was, of course, written by the team behind Frozen, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. That song is “Remember Me,” the hit song of de la Cruz and the film’s main theme. Like Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go,” the film tends to use this song as a crutch by returning to it time and time again throughout its run (I think five times overall). However, unlike the former, Coco gets a pass by incorporating the song into the plot (trust me, it’s important), as well as using it as a way to demonstrate songwriters’ intent vs. the performer’s vision. I won’t say much more, but it’s an interesting concept that has been applied to many different works, ranging from Shakespeare’s 18th Sonnet to Sia’s “Chandelier.” It’s an interesting discussion, and not one I expected from a children’s film.
However, as many gripes as I had during the first two-thirds of this film, finding it underwhelming and trite, of course Pixar had to come along and just punch me in the face over and over again in the finale. The third act kicks off by addressing two of the most predictable plot twists of the film, but never in the way you’d expect. And I will declare this now: once those twists start happening, with about half an hour left to the film’s running time, you will not stop crying. It is just an absolute flood of emotion that will overtake you, refusing to let go until every last drop of moisture has escaped your body through your eye sockets. I’m not sure what it was that won me over and made me weep so terribly (and I remind you – I do not weep easily at films). Perhaps it was how skillfully Pixar was pulling off this change, embracing subtlety in their storytelling to tell even the most predictable of plot points. Maybe it was the way it handled these delicate, heartbreaking themes in such a mature way. Or maybe it’s just because film is the ultimate mirror of emotion, and it managed to show a reflection of all of my buttons and switches. However, I can tell you, there are at least five points where you’re like “I can’t take much more of this, I’ve got to stop crying,” only for the film to turn around and make you cry even harder, just for fun. While not quite as stunning in its simplistic weightiness, the last thirty minutes will stand toe-to-toe with the first fifteen minutes of Up any day in my book.
As for the cast, I won’t claim that this is the greatest cast that Pixar has ever put together, but the fact that they are all Latin American stars and icons is definitely nothing to sneeze at. Young Anthony Gonzalez is a natural at providing the voice of young Miguel, making him cocky, anxious, loving, and naïve, all at the same time. Meanwhile, Benjamin Bratt provides the perfect level of charm and sleaze that makes people celebrities, portraying Ernesto de la Cruz as something of a cross between Elvis and Chevy Chase’s character at the beginning of Three Amigos! Speaking of Three Amigos! Alfonso Arau (El Guapo) shows up in a small role, but any true fan will instantly recognize and love his presence here. Edward James Olmos has a vocal cameo that will wow you in its melancholic reflectiveness. And the collection of female voices will pull you in through its honesty and relatability, including Renée Victor as Abuelita Elena, Alanna Ubach as Mamá Imelda, Natalia Cordova-Buckley as Frida Kahlo, and especially Ana Ofelia Murguía, who will warm your heart with just a few simple lines. However, I would say the film’s secret weapon is Gael García Bernal, who brings his special brand of relatability and Puckish tricksterism to the role of Héctor, and will warm your heart with his songs, vocal inflections, and just sheer emotion as a skeleton forgotten by the world who will do anything to be remembered. He plays well off of Gonzalez, and they make the film work in even the slowest and weakest of sections.
There is nothing bad in Coco, although the weaknesses of the first two-thirds will definitely make you appreciate the third act all the more because of it. Coco is a warm, vibrant film with a lesson for the entire family, and the fact it brings such a warm, positive light to Mexican culture is an added plus. Like most Pixar films, Coco is a film not to miss, pushing the thematic boundaries of children’s films to teach important life lessons while providing stunning visuals to get there. Sure, it’s not perfect, but I wouldn’t take it any other way.
Note: This film technically earns two grades, with the average labeled below. The first two thirds of this film earn a B. The final third earns an A+. This averages out to…