When you’re a film critic seeing a film every day or so, you quickly tire of formula. It’s testament to the charm and character of Pixar’s latest, Coco, that it can win a crusty critic like myself over without once deviating from Pixar’s established formula.
As in Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Cars, there’s a plucky young protagonist – Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) – who’s as arrogant as he is amiable. Miguel wants to be a world-famous musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), despite his Mexican family’s generations-long aversion to music that dates back to a neglectful great grandfather with grand dreams. As in pretty well every Pixar film, Miguel finds himself on an unexpected adventure – in this instance because his attempt to steal de la Cruz’s guitar from his tomb curses him to the afterlife on Dia de los Muertos (Mexico’s annual ‘Day of the Dead’ celebration).
Joined by a scruffy sidekick and a trickster companion named Héctor (Gael García Bernal), the film hews closely to familiar Pixar tradition – clever jokes, expansive action, climactic twists (including a retread of Toy Story 2) and a buddy comedy to rival that of Inside Out, or Up, or Ratatouille, or …you get the idea. But rather than sounding tired and a little out of tune, (like a good chunk of Pixar’s post-Toy Story 3 output), Coco sings.
In large part that’s because of how generously the film embraces its Mexican setting and culture. The central tension of the film is familiar to anyone – the to-and-fro between personal ambition and familial obligation – but it’s elevated by the Latino characters and the strong sense of family evident in their culture. Directed by Lee Unkrich with contributions from co-director/co-screenwriter Adrian Molina (who’s of Mexican descent) and a cast of Latinx actors, Coco comes across as a genuine attempt to represent a culture too rarely seen in big Hollywood films. (Though this is of course complicated by recent revelations about the lack of inclusivity behind the scenes at Pixar.)
It’s Coco’s representation of the Mexican afterlife that truly shines. The fantastical realm – where spirits must be remembered by their families on the other side to cross over to land of living – gives the animators full licence for colourful creativity. This is simply a gorgeous film, bursting with brightness and light.
The story, too, is a success. Like the greatest picture films, its broad and accessible enough to thrill young children while addressing complex questions that will resonate for even the most seasoned audience members. Too often children’s films regard ‘family’ as an unquestioned source of pure good; Coco understands that even the most loving families can be bastions of prejudice and inflexibility. Sure, there’s a happy ending – enabled by a couple of twists you’ll see coming a mile away – but its tempered by the acknowledgment that not all family conflicts can be smoothed over by love and understanding.
Coco falls just short of Pixar’s greatest achievements, in part because that aforementioned formula restricts its ability to surprise. But the film’s ability to delight is unquestioned, and I have little doubt that this will settle into the regularly-rewatched Pixar canon for families alongside the studio’s best films. Sometimes following formula can be a good thing.