For years Pixar was the king of mountain, but over the last decade (ever since Cars 2 really) they have fallen from their mountain top. The question is no longer “Is this the greatest animated film of all time?” but “Has Pixar found it’s groove again?” So, has Pixar finally found it again?
COCO is most definitely a return to form for Pixar. Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. This film has a pizza truck and all of the regular Easter Eggs, there is a comical sidekick, and the animation is amazingly breathtaking. All of that is par for the course with a Pixar film and really isn’t something I think needs to be touched upon too much.
So what makes COCO a must see film? The team behind this film took six years to make it, with multiple trips to Mexico for research and it shows. This film is a love letter to Mexican culture, but not in a way that exploits it for box office gold. This film, for better or worse, is authentic to small town Mexico where beliefs are strong and family comes before all. Take for example the use of ofrendas, which are altars for the dead. This story revolves around these traditional Dia de los Muertos altars entirely. The use of alebrije folk art within the film adds layers and color to the film, which wasn’t necessary, but is a fantastic nod to a country and one of their most popular artforms. Watching this film I felt as though I was learning as well as being told a story, and not in a dry NatGeo special kind of way, but this was an enjoyable educational journey.
Ok, I’m a little off track here. COCO is a story about Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) a pre-teen boy who is in the midst of discovering his passion for music, however his family isn’t so fond of music due to an incident generations ago. Like I said before, family is a big theme and Miguel’s family has a strong bond and the family always comes first. In their eyes, Miguel’s love of music is disrespectful to his family legacy. He, like the rest of his family, is destined to be a shoe maker, but that isn’t his dream at all. Instead of obeying his family’s wishes, he tries to prove that he is destined to be a great musician by playing guitar like his hero Ernesto De La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) at the Dia De Los Muertos Talent Show, but there is a problem, he is left without a guitar….so the reasonable 12-year-old thought of stealing De La Cruz’s guitar comes into play, but with the strum of his guitar Miguel is taken to the land of the dead on the one night a year where the land of the living and the land of the dead are connected…and that is just the beginning of this film and what I can give without spoiling everything.
The rest of the film builds with discovery and cultural references. Miguel’s journey does however, take him to dark places, and even I was surprised by how dark the company that made Up was willing to go. I should have known that we would be going to a dark place with a movie filled with skeletons in the land of the dead…I mean…everyone there died in some manner. With that in mind, death also becomes a theme in this film along with legacy. No matter who we are or where we come from, the theme of death digs deep and by the end of this film I guarantee you’ll be shedding a tear, or at least thinking about yourself or someone close to you leaving their legacy while moving from the land of the living to the land of the dead.
What else separates this film from the lot of other Pixar films is music. This is Pixar’s first attempt at a real musical with several musical numbers sung by the all-Hispanic cast of this film. Unlike a film like Moana or Frozen, which has music most theatre kids will blast on their spotify playlist, Coco’s music is authentic to it’s culture. Much of it’s soundtrack is made up of Mariachi and instrumentation true to Mexican music. Sure Pixar could have pulled a pop star into the mix to belt out a ballad that would surely make them money from iTunes sales, but Coco’s music feels fitting. The folk music and original songs used, once again, don’t exploit a culture, it embraces it and although I didn’t walk out of the theater singing all of the songs, I felt more interested in Mariachi music than ever! (BTW there is some outstanding Mariachi out there and if the language barrier ruins it for you, I suggest you listen to the English language band Mariachi El Bronx).
Walking into COCO I wasn’t sure about the film. I wasn’t sure about the choice in being authentic to a culture many film goers won’t know about. I wasn’t even sure the name COCO worked, but as I walked out of the theater I couldn’t have been happier with every choice that Pixar made. Yes this film is a family film made by a studio that hides a pizza truck in every film just because, but this is a film with so much story, heart, and culture that you’ll want to ignore the silly Easter eggs and just embrace the skeletons, the music, the characters, and your own beliefs in family, death, and legacy.
COCO will arrive in theaters nationwide on November 22, 2017