A mini-rant before I start. I’ve never understood why people tolerate low quality in films intended for children. Their rhetoric can be summarized with: “But it’s just a kid’s film!”. Hmmm, we put so much effort in creating a healthy, safe environment for children, but when it comes to entertainment it’s okay to put out bare-minimum, ‘passable’ movies? I don’t think so. Luckily, Coco is fascinating enough to wipe all those awful Disney sequels we saw as wee lads out of our memories.
Coco’s greatest strength comes from its simplicity and the introduction of high ‘stakes’. If this project had fallen into the wrong hands, it would have been a tensionless, corny story about a boy named Miguel and his love for music, culminating in an overblown cover of Ricky Martin’s Livin La Vida Loca. But Pixar succeeds where others fail by adding in a new aspect – the Mexican Land of the Dead. Once Miguel ends up here, things start to get interesting. Miguel has 24 hours to return to the real world, or else fade from existence – but also to find out the secret behind his ancestry. If he gets caught by the countless security guards, he’s toast. If he gets caught by his dead relatives, who believe music is a curse, he’s toast as well. Again, easy-to-understand high stakes – that’s the backbone for Coco’s brilliance.
Aesthetically, Coco also triumphs most movies. Pixar did their research correctly, spending months in Mexico, wondering how to elevate a culture that’s foreign to them. The results are stunning. The streets of Mexico are not portrayed as colorless, crumbling slums, but rather individually unique houses that are scattered amongst displays of Mexican clothing, music, food, traditional art, and most of all – the bright orange leaves placed on every path for ‘Dia de Los Muertos’, providing navigation for spirits in search of their former homes. The Land of the Dead which Miguel explores is equally beautiful. It reminded me of a Miyazaki film, in that the spirit world and the real world are able to exist in harmony, with macabre and human aspects combined, reflected in the colorful buildings and creatures inhabiting a world that is, ironically, refreshingly alive.
But what surprised me the most is how much momentum this film had left, even after Miguel’s family secrets are revealed. He even proves himself as a musician, performing for hundreds of the dead. You’d think that these two moments the premise promises would be a suitable conclusion, but there are many twists after that point. They’re executed so well that even if you have a vague idea of what they might be, they still land like a hammer to the head. My favorite twist? When the audience learns why the movie is titled Coco – and not Miguel – tying several themes (death, family, childhood innocence) together perfectly.
Now back to my opening rant. I love Pixar because they don’t pander to a certain demographic or the lowest common denominator. Case in point: Coco is one of the most anti-kid kid films I have ever seen. What kind of animation studio builds their movie around grievance and death? Yet Pixar pulls off this incredible feat by sticking to a tried-and-true formula: a simple story and complex details. Shame on the parents who chose Ferdinand (starring John Cena… as a bull?) instead.
Good movies can make a 6-year old laugh and a 60-year old cry. Coco is one of them.