There was a time, even a few years back, when I wouldn’t have missed a Pixar movie for the world. And even now, when some of the luster has come off of the studio’s once flawless sheen – maybe especially now, after the disastrous one-two punch of The Good Dinosaur and Cars 3 (which, admittedly, I didn’t even bother to see) – to see a Pixar movie is to be reminded of the fact that the studio’s work is so head and shoulders above the majority of its peers (I’m looking at you, Dreamworks and Sony Pictures Animation; Studio Ghibli, you still rock). Luckily, Coco is a move back in the right direction for the studio, getting back to so much of what Pixar is known for. And while Coco has some flaws, they’re more than outweighed by the film’s successes.
Mind you, Coco doesn’t feel like anything special or great in the early going, taking far too long to get to its central conceit, and not always successfully threading the needle between “being respectful to Mexican culture” and “overdoing it”. The setup feels a bit labored for a while, following a young boy named Miguel who wants to be a musician, despite his family’s hatred of the profession. After a lot of business involving the Day of the Dead, an iconic Mexican mariachi, and a talent show, Coco finally dives into its real world: the world of the dead, where spirits wander and live as long as someone in the physical world remembers them – but once they’re forgotten, even their ghosts die off.
Pixar animation is at its best when it’s allowed to be wild and imaginative, and the Land of the Dead is no exception; as depicted in Coco, it’s vibrant, dazzling, and absolutely wondrous, reminding you of how ambitious Pixar can be, and how astonishing their animation so often is. Truly, the opening reveal of the Land of the Dead is a jaw-dropper, and as the film dives into bureaucracies, spirit guides, outcast neighborhoods, and more, you’re reminded of what made you fall in love with Pixar movies in the first place.
And, of course, there comes the reminder that really, no other American studio can marry plot, theme, and emotional heft as seamlessly as Coco. This is a film about memory and legacy, and about how we remember and honor those who come before us. That’s weighty fare, but as usual for the studio, it’s handled skilfully, incorporated into the story in such a way that it never overwhelms the characters, but instead, underlines their own emotional battles, all while hitting home for the audience. This is a film not only about our relationship with our own ancestors, but also, our fears of being forgotten, and our worries about what we’ll leave behind – and Pixar turns it from subtext to text and back again effortlessly, just as they did at the peak of their powers.
For all of that – and there’s a lot there to love – Coco doesn’t feel as original and surprising as the best Pixar work. The plotting here is pretty obvious, with a couple of major reveals along the way telegraphed to the point of obviousness, both from their familiarity and from the way Pixar works. And that first act is a drag; one of the great things about so many of the first generation Pixar films is the way they hit the ground running, never wasting a second, while Coco feels long at times. For all of that, though, it’s a welcome return to form for the studio, and a joy as a family film, especially at a time where it feels like everything is soulless, bland, and flat.
About that Olaf short: Infamously, Coco is preceded by a Frozen short film called Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, whose reception has been blistering. Here’s what I’ll say about it: it’s fairly obvious that this was intended as a TV holiday special, and anyone who’s sat through any of them with their kids will feel that instantly – the blandness, generic feel, flat message, and “holiday” message all feel like the kind of thing you turn on during the season for the kids, while parents mainly zone out. All of which is to say, it’s not awful, like that terrible short Lava before Inside Out; it’s just bland and dull. The problem, really, is the length – while everyone enjoys shorts before Disney movies, no one wanted a 20-minute short before a movie, especially after trailers and before a short ad for Pixar. It’s certainly not good or interesting, but its crime is more in its length than anything truly memorable or bad about it.