Anthony's Film Review
Pixar's storytelling trademarks are mixed wonderfully with a tribute to a real-life cultural tradition...
It is refreshing to see the 2017 Pixar animated film Coco, given how plenty of feature-length Pixar movies have been sequels (or in the case of Monsters University, a prequel). Usually, watching a Pixar sequel is fun but one thing tends to be missing: the discovery of a whole new world. Pixar sequels offer new storylines with familiar characters set in familiar worlds. However, an original non-sequel non-prequel Pixar movie allows the audience to follow a story while getting to know the characters and the fictional world for the first time. There is a real sense of wonder with everything, not just the story.
I always love the way Pixar anthropomorphizes non-human things, like toys, cars, and aquatic creatures. But I especially love Pixar movies that place these characters in worlds that have their own set of laws and customs. When you look at, for example, the inner workings of the energy company in Monsters Inc. or the human brain in Inside Out, you are observing things that are both humorously similar to what humans do and cleverly unique to the Pixar characters' world. To a certain degree, Coco does that. But it also does something I have never seen Pixar do previously: connect it all to an actual cultural tradition.
This Pixar movie takes place on Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), the annual Mexican holiday where people pay tribute to the deceased. What the Pixar team has done is create a spirit world, the Land of the Dead, where anthropomorphic clothed skeletons exist in afterlife. That world is very much like a society of living people, though with one unique feature. Spirits may cross over to visit living loved ones, but only if security at the border between worlds confirms that at least one photo of them in life is displayed on an altar somewhere. It just goes to show how endlessly creative Pixar is. You can also expect to see a few more creative bits about the Land of the Dead as the movie goes on.
The story centers on a boy named Miguel. He is born to a family of shoe makers, which is a reliable way to make a living. However, the family also bans music from the household because it's a curse to them. Miguel finds himself in a tough conflict, because he has a passion for playing music and does not want to be stuck working with shoes. This is why, in a secret alcove, he admires the great musician Ernesto de la Cruz without his family's knowledge, and why he risks his family's wrath by sneaking off to perform in a local talent show.
Then, something unexpected happens. Miguel performs an action that teleports him to the Land of the Dead. He is suddenly invisible to his family, yet can interact with deceased members of his family. And he soon finds himself in another dilemma. Miguel sees an opportunity to meet Ernesto in the Land of the Dead and get a blessing from him, in hopes of making his dream of becoming a musician come true. But the spirits of his ancestors, particularly his great-great-grandmother, want him to return to the land of the living and help his dead family cross over. On top of that, if he doesn't leave before Día de Muertos ends, he will fully become a spirit and never be able to come home again.
Basically, this is the adventure of one boy's search for his idol, where success means happiness and failure means being stuck in one place forever, whether in the living family's shoe business or in the Land of the Dead. He isn't doing it alone, however. He has two unexpected companions: a dog named Dante and a dead person named Hector. These two supporting characters may seem forgettable at first, but just wait. You will probably appreciate them a lot more later on.
If this movie were just about the adventure, it would be a pretty good Pixar movie. But it's much more than that. In fact, I would say that this Pixar movie goes back to the animation studio's roots, by incorporating touching scenes to explore heartfelt themes. Here, the predominant theme is family. It's about the power of love and the pain of loss, as well as connecting with family both living and dead. With this, the movie Coco goes from a pretty good Pixar movie to a very good one, perhaps one of the best. (Note: The title refers not to the main character, but a particular supporting character who will ultimately warm your heart.)
With the way Pixar produced Coco, I was engrossed from beginning to end. I admired the way the movie portrays Mexican culture and Día de Muertos (although others who know the culture much more than I do should be the judge of all that). I nodded plenty of times in response to the clever creativity of the Land of the Dead's design. I found myself on the verge of tears during the emotionally-driven scenes. And when it was over, I gave the movie a smile and a really big nod, because everything came together perfectly.
I have enjoyed every feature-length Pixar movie, though to different degrees. On my 1-to-10 rating scale, I had given Pixar movies the following scores: a 7 for good and decent (A Bug's Life, Cars, Brave), an 8 for pretty good (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Toy Story 3, Monsters University, The Good Dinosaur, Finding Dory, Cars 3), a 9 for very good (WALL-E, Cars 2, Inside Out), and a 10 for excellent or just a whole lot of fun (Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, Up). Where do I rate Coco? Well, given what I described, I would put it in the top tier, as a 10/10. It may not reach or exceed movies like Finding Nemo and Toy Story 2, because the Pixar trademarks are familiar by now, but it's a step above Up. More importantly, Coco connects creative fiction with noteworthy culture appreciation, not much like what we've seen before. This could be a stepping stone for new and inspiring directions for Pixar. With the studio's continuing desire to explore new territory, who knows what they'll come up with next?
For more information about Coco, visit the Internet Movie Database.