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Review: Coco (2017)

Coco (2017)

Directed by: Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina  

Premise: An animated film. During the Day of the Dead festival, Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez) is transported to the afterlife. He must find his way back to the land of the living by seeking out his great-great-grandfather.

What Works: Pixar has distinguished itself among Hollywood animation houses with the high quality of its work. The studio’s movies consistently feature rich visual texture; the characters have tremendous subtlety and the backgrounds brim with detail. But even for the high standards that Pixar has created for itself, Coco is an impressive piece of craftsmanship. This is a beautifully produced feature with vibrant colors and a tangible story world. On the level of production value, Coco rivals anything else Pixar has made. It is also the closest Pixar has come to making a musical. It has several song and dance numbers in which Miguel and others perform for the crowds and the whole movie has a melodic feel in its style and pacing. The film also distinguishes itself with a cast of characters who are more complex than we usually get from an animated film. Miguel aspires to be a musician but his family opposes his interests because of an ancestor who walked out on the family to pursue a musical career. When Miguel is accidentally transported to the netherworld, he discovers that his great-great-grandfather was a musician and seeks him out for a blessing that will allow Miguel to return to the land of the living. Miguel’s journey requires him to uncover and resolve long standing family secrets and reconcile the past and the present. This isn’t as simple as the young learning from the old or vice versa; the generations exchange realizations and Coco is a more mature film than a lot of animated features. This allows Coco to be heartwarming but also substantive. The movie pushes all the right emotional buttons but because the characters are so vivid Coco doesn’t feel overly calculated. There are some strong emotional beats in Coco but the movie earns them and the sentimental moments are attached to narrative and emotional climaxes.

What Doesn’t: The story of Coco hinges upon a reveal late in the movie. While that twist may surprise young people, most viewers will see the plot point coming early on. And that’s indicative of Coco’s singular flaw. This is a conventional narrative. Throughout the company’s filmography, Pixar has created great characters set in rich environments but the studio generally remains within familiar storytelling formulas. Coco certainly does that. The result is a movie that is predictable and safe. It’s still a good time at the movies and it does its formula well but Coco has the feel of something we’ve seen before because at some level we already have in Monsters Inc. and Brave. That overfamiliarity holds Coco back from achieving the kind of greatness we’ve seen in the Toy Story trilogy or Inside Out.

Bottom Line: Coco is an upper-level Pixar feature. The studio has outdone itself in the film’s technical qualities and Coco has a lot of energy and a catchy musical vibe. The story may be familiar to a fault but the characters and the visual style are vivid. 

Episode: #676 (December 3, 2017)