dir. Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina
reviewed by Dakota Drobnicki
Before I begin talking about Pixar’s newest film, let me express my displeasure with Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, the 21-minute TV movie that Disney jammed in front of the main attraction. Although decent enough on its own, for me it served as a cruel reminder of why a Frozen 2 just does not seem like a good idea—the staleness of this “short” padded with five musical numbers warned me of a forthcoming sequel that might be on par with Disney’s old direct-to-video sequel habits. Theaters in Mexico apparently stripped the “short” from screenings thanks to audience complaints, and I wish American theaters would do the same.
With that out of the way, Coco is a pretty hot property this week, dominating the Thanksgiving box office and stripping away Justice League’s hopes at recouping its ungodly $300 million production budget. Coco is for the most part pretty sweet, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth right at the end that nearly ruined the whole concoction for me. If Pixar had been more willing to switch up their recipe, they might’ve had something more delectable on their hands.
Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) is a young aspiring musician in a Mexican family of shoemakers, where music is banned in the household because his great-great-grandfather notoriously left home forever to embark on a music career. He secretly idolizes the legendary Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a famous musician and actor… until he notices that in his great-great-grandparents’ ofrenda photo, his great-great-granddad (whose head was once conveniently ripped off the photo) is holding Ernesto’s trademark guitar.
Convinced that Ernesto must indeed be his ancestor, Miguel breaks into Ernesto’s tomb on Dia de los Muertos to borrow his guitar—except that when he strums it, he instantly transcends into the land of the dead. When the spirit of his great-great-grandmother (Alanna Ubach) tries to uphold his ban on music with a blessing to return to the living, he runs away to find Ernesto’s spirit and get his blessing instead. Along the way, he helps a trickster named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) who wants his photo on an ofrenda before memory of him is lost forever.
In my view, Coco is essentially Pixar’s Lady and the Tramp, which is not an entirely positive comparison to make. Both films are visually gorgeous for their respective time periods and animation styles—you won’t find very many animated films of late that match Coco’s audiovisual splendor and attention to detail. (Especially not in tacked-on Frozen followups.)
When the movie is firing on all cylinders, it’s hilarious, touching, heartwarming, you name it. Quite a bit of my personal investment into the movie was predicated upon Miguel’s aspirations to be a musician—aspirations I personally share with him. Even to an audience member without that personal connection, Miguel is a well-written and easily relateable protagonist.
My personal favorite bit was the subplot involving the famous artist Frida Kahlo, who creates a pretty amazing demonstration at Ernesto’s stadium spectacular.
The movie sets itself up for an ending that would be heartbreaking to a point, but would likely have a bittersweet twist that could still leave general audiences satisfied. As it set up this ending, I cried about three times within the last twenty minutes, above and beyond my personal requirement of at least once for a good Disney or Pixar movie.
Then at the last few minutes, it turns out that the central conflict, the crux of the entire narrative, could have been solved by somebody checking a drawer. Pixar apparently felt they had to tie every possible emotional loose end up in the happiest bow imaginable, and in doing so robbed the movie of a lot of the dramatic heft it had set up.
Think of the scene at the end of Lady and the Tramp where Trusty got hit by a wagon and loses consciousness. The scene sets up the idea that he died in a noble sacrifice to save Tramp from the dog catcher. The movie fades out to when Lady and Tramp have a few children, and suddenly Trusty shows up, totally fine other than a cast on his front leg. I don’t know about you, but for me, that was an unearned happy ending that robbed the previous scene of all its emotional weight.
Does this sudden shift into a way-too-perfect happy ending ruin what good the movie had already built up? Not really, no, but it did affect to the point where whenever I watch it again, I might have half a mind to shut it off before the last few minutes. I’ve done that a few times when I rewatched High Tension, a French horror film with a twist ending far more controversial among its fans than Coco’s ending seems to have been.
If those kind of endings don’t bother you, however, you’ll go loco for Coco. Up to a point, it was easily Pixar’s best movie since Inside Out, if it doesn’t exceed that one for you. Perhaps I might even watch it again someday and not mind the overly-Disneyfied ending, but until now, perfection is too far out of reach for me to give it quite the acclaim others have.