For the second time in 2017, Pixar is back with a new animated feature, this time in the form of Coco. Earlier this summer, Cars 3 underperformed, at best, likely resulting in a rare financial loss for the studio. Pixar’s reputation has seemingly been tarnished a bit in the eyes of audiences, as 2015’s The Good Dinosaur (a film with a very troubled production) also failed to earn a profit, making this two back-to-back disappointments for the once unstoppable juggernaut. Pixar and Disney hope to turn things around with their newest release, Coco.
To my recollection, this is the first Pixar film to not be theatrically preceded by a Pixar animated short. Instead, playing before the film is the Disney animated short film “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure”. The film is good – and genuinely funny – but not exactly short, by most people’s definition of the word. Running a full 21 minutes, the presentation confused several uninformed members of my audience, today. One family got up and left, with one of them loudly and eloquently espousing, “I ain’t watchin’ no FROZEN!”. They came back in a few moments later, obviously having been educated by a member of the staff. Another lady sitting a couple of rows in front of me got up in the middle of it. She came back a few minutes later and muttered to her family, “It’s on next,” obviously referring to Coco. So, try to just enjoy it and not be somehow angry that you’re getting something extra for the same price you would have paid, anyway.
Moving on to Coco, it’s nice to see Pixar doing something original, again, rather than a continuation of another of their previous franchises. It hasn’t truly been all that long since their last non-sequel films, with both Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur being released in 2015, but it feels longer than that – especially since The Good Dinosaur was not a particularly enthralling endeavor (though Inside Out was pure gold). Coco is thankfully a return to artistic form for Pixar.
When young Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) goes against his family’s wishes in an effort to pursue his dream of becoming a musician, his journey leads him on a search for his great-great grandfather in the Land of the Dead, who he believes will bless him with the support he has always desired from the family that stills surrounds him in the world of the living. That journey leads him to many new discoveries about both himself and the rest of his family.
There’s a lot going on in Coco, so it’s a little tough to decide where to start. Narratively speaking, in the early going, I was reminded of the brilliant Kubo and the Two Strings. The two films share a few cultural (despite existing in Japanese vs. Mexican cultures), cosmetic, and thematic similarities, but fork into different paths pretty quickly. Coco not only addresses the difficulty one often faces in the quest to live for oneself and not for others, but also the role that family can play in that quest – both positively and negatively. When the film opens, Miguel feels like a black sheep – unappreciated and unloved by those who are supposed to appreciate and love him the most. That is all too common in life (and I understand it more than I wish I did, myself) and will be relatable to many members of the viewing audience – mostly the older ones.
But that leads directly to his search for the one member of his family whom he believes will accept him for who he is. Obviously, I’m not going to get into what happens from there, but the message of the film is ultimately one about the importance of family, not one of rebellion. It’s a common theme in Pixar’s films but an effective one, nonetheless. I was far more moved by the film than I expected to be and put the film near Wonder Woman in terms of emotional resonance – high praise if you’re familiar with my stance on that particular film. The audience I shared the theater with clearly felt the same way, as they actually applauded when the film ended – a rarity in my neck of the woods.
Another important note to make is that the film centers entirely around Mexican folklore with Mexican characters and a Mexican cast but is accessible and easy to relate to for anyone, regardless of heritage and ethnicity. That’s an important and laudable achievement in today’s cultural climate. As xenophobia (at best) and outright racism (at worst) continue make themselves felt throughout the world, a (hopefully) blockbuster animated film that successfully makes the point that we are all more alike than we are different can actually do a lot of good. Children pay attention to their entertainment and can take good messages to heart, even if their parents stubbornly insist on keeping their own heads firmly buried in the sand.
Pixar has crafted a film that is not only visually stunning and entertaining, but emotionally and socially relevant. There are even more levels to the film that are very much tied to a current hot-button topic that I won’t mention for fear of spoilers. The specific story element I’m thinking of was an accident because the timing and how long it takes to make a film like this wouldn’t allow it to be deliberate) but still poignant. The movie isn’t as laugh-out-loud funny as some of their others, but Coco is an unqualified success on all other levels and stands tall as a win for a studio who is desperately in need of a big one.
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