Review: COCO

The boundaries between Pixar and their parent company Disney Animation Studios haven’t existed for years – my estimate puts the crumbling of the wall in 2010, when Pixar released Toy Story 3 (a movie they once vowed never to make) and Disney released Tangled (Which was a Pixar style team-up adventure of people from two different worlds, fit into the framework of a princess movie). This means that Pixar is subject to Disney’s production cycles and its corporate aims.

I don’t mean this in an especially terrible way, and it’s not as if Pixar wasn’t always an enormous corporation whose creative output always came along very specific channels, but this is just a fact: The biggest difference the Pixar logo makes is whether you’ll get an obligatory appearance from John Ratzenberger or Alan Tudyk.

In case you were wondering whether I think the Pixar Theory is dumb and bad, the Pixar Theory is dumb and bad.

The real point I’m making is that you can’t talk about the newest Pixar-branded movie Coco, while pretending it’s made by different people from the ones who made Zootopia and Moana. Like those other two movies – obviously more the latter – Coco is using Disney’s own gargantuan cultural cachet to explore cultures it’s denigrated, misrepresented or ignored for decades.

In this case it’s turning its sights on Mexico, home of huge smothering families, old music-heavy gaucho movies, the folk-inspired art of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the Day of the Dead, and… not much else that the movie is concerned with. Again, this isn’t a problem or a mark against the movie – at least, it wasn’t to me. I don’t feel comfortable giving it any kind of judgement either way. In fact, I feel seriously unqualified to talk about any aspect of this,1 so I won’t try to speak out of turn about it except to note that it’s a good sign that the movie isn’t named for the main hero, but the main hero’s wrinkled old abuela.

Instead, I’ll talk about the story, which is… well, here’s an experiment. Consider a cartoon face. In fact, I’ll help you out: Consider this cartoon face.

Looks kind of a bit like Ricky Baker if you flattened him a little.

Compare it to a real-life face. Note how the shape has been smoothed out, the features our eyes fixate on exaggerated. How elements like the nose are about as simple as a child’s drawing, staying on the far side of the uncanny valley, but the hair and irises must have taken hundreds of hours from dozens of people to render because we have to show off the technology somehow.

That’s the story of Coco. It’s taking something everyone recognizes and exaggerating it as far as it’ll go. Ever felt like your family doesn’t care about what you do? Well, meet the heroic little boy Miguel, an aspiring musician whose enormous family regards music about the same way the Dursleys do magic, leading him to practice music in secret and become good enough to hold his own for an audience of hundreds despite never having performed for anyone before.

You ever had a hero, had some kind of deep emotional attachment to someone famous you’ve never met? Miguel has movie star and singing sensation Ernesto de la Cruz, who the kid calls “The greatest musician who ever lived” multiple times, with no indication that anyone disagrees with him, who turns out to be Miguel’s grandfather, struck from all the family records.

Oh dear this isn’t Ernesto de la Cruz, it’s real life movie star and singing sensation Pedro Infante. How could I have made that mistake?

Hey kids (and former kids), you ever felt like the adult world is strange, dangerous and can’t decide whether it loves people like you or wants to kill them? Imagine how Miguel feels when some spiritual shenanigans leave him trapped in the Land of the Dead, a hyper-colorful realm filled with cartoon chanclas of the deceased, and fraught with the supernatural bureaucracy that seems to be all the rage with afterlife stories these days.

I notice I sound cooler on the movie than I probably feel. This chimeric creature of children’s cinema knows its stuff, whether it puts on its old Pixar mask or not. I enjoyed Moana – the performances, the songs, the beautifully realized world, the  heart-wrenching ending that gets you hard even when you know it’s coming – and if you feel the same way you’ll have a great time with the songs and performances and world and ending of Coco.

This guy, voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal, is the movie’s Disney/Pixar standard secondary hero (Maui, et al). In true that-thing-I-just-said tradition, you’ll start out laughing at him and end up pining for him.

I could go on pretending I can view this through a purely adult lens – I could mention all the worrying implications of the internal logic of the Land of the Dead, or the way that land’s strange unreal environments sometimes get forgotten entirely, so the animators have the chance to use their stone and water and skin rendering software – but Pixar runs deep for me. I’m nearly the exact right age to have moved out of its target audience the minute its Golden Age ended. This is one of the first chances a humble millennial like myself has to experience nostalgia, and I’m quite annoyed by how predictable my response is – the cocktail of recognition, loss, embarrassment and revelation.

Coco is in theaters now. The only thing I could say that may help you decide whether to see it is this: You might be dissuaded from seeing the movie by the allegations against John Lasseter, but by the time his name shows up in the credits the movie will have given you the tools to get some catharsis from the situation, or maybe even start a conversation with your kids about this kind of thing. Look within yourself to see whether it’s worth it to watch before you’re spoiled by the thousands of thinkpieces about to be penned by conflicted parents after they leave the theater.

Also, Olaf the Snowman shows his Frozen face around these parts, before the movie, in a full TV-length short – it is what it is, and at least it’s constantly aware how little justification it has to exist.

  1. I count myself lucky that my high-school Spanish meant I could keep up with most of the conversational Spanish used in the movie.