By now, anyone who has watched even a few Pixar films understands that there is a minimum level of entertainment that these films offer – and that minimum is usually set very high. So, in terms of a review, all we can do as writers is determine at what level of good the Pixar film is. Coco is on the lower end of good. It hits all the notes. The animation is great. The characters are sympathetic. And it will try to make you cry. But there’s also a lot of esoteric Mexican lore that’s hard to digest as quickly as the film needs audiences to. For those that can’t, Coco may feel a little random sometimes.
Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old boy living in a fictional Mexico town, and he dreams of becoming a great guitar player. Unfortunately, he comes from a family of shoemakers who have rejected music ever since Miguel’s great-great-grandfather left his family to chase fame and fortune as a musician. When Miguel discovers that his great-great-grandfather might be Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), the most famous guitarist in the history of Mexico, Miguel forgoes spending Día de Muertos – the day when Mexicans remember their loved ones who have died and offer them gifts – and instead secretly tries to join a local talent competition. Unfortunately, Miguel is found out and is forbidden from playing music. Cursing his family, Miguel escapes to the local cemetery where something magical happens – he crosses over into the Land of the Dead. And the only way for him to get back is to receive the blessing from a family member before sunrise or else be trapped forever. He sets out to find Ernesto de la Cruz.
The presentation is exactly what audiences have come to expect from a studio with the kind of pedigree that Pixar has. From the opening moments that tell the backstory using paper cutouts to the character movements that are more human than human, the animation is truly remarkable, which spoils viewers into accepting nothing less than this perfection. There are moments of uncanny human emotion, like when Miguel watches old VHS tapes of de la Cruz and plays his child’s guitar, closing his eyes and becoming one with the notes and rhythm. You can almost see the future and the far off distant places he’s imagining. It’s amazing that animation can stoke the emotions that live action films can’t.
And yet, there is some confusion with the visual presentation. For one, Miguel seems to live in a timeless place, away from almost all technology. There are no modern vehicles, cell phones, or internet-connected devices. If it weren’t for seeing Miguel watching black and white videos of de la Cruz and then doing some quick math to account for the multiple generations, then viewers would be hard pressed to know exactly in what era the film takes place. Setting the story in an ostensibly remote village and omitting the time is probably some necessary storytelling sleight of hand, otherwise a modern 12-year-old kid idolizing someone from the 40’s would be a difficult concept to appreciate.
The confusion isn’t clarified much when Miguel crosses over to the Land of the Dead, which is fantastical, but also seems to be stuck in the 1960’s, if its primitive computers and other technology are any indication. The story wants the viewer mindset to exist in a previous era, which fits perfectly with the tale it’s telling, but struggles to explain the timeline for the multiple generations.
There’s also the matter of Mexican folklore and uninitiated viewers. How much of what is presented of the Land of the Dead is grounded in Mexican culture? Without much of it being explained in the film, a lot of what is presented can feel random. For example, there are spirit animals in the Land of the Dead who seem to be able to do anything the plot demands. Even if the exact details aren’t in line with Mexican folklore, from a storytelling aspect, more about the Land of the Dead (and its limitations) should have been shared earlier in the film.
Ultimately, however, all of these criticisms get swept away in the final act when the Pixar formula demands that the audience cry. But, like in every Pixar film, the expectation is not borne from cynicism, but from tapping into a basic human truism that binds us all. In Coco, that truism is the priceless value of family, which is exemplified by Miguel’s substantial number of relatives across generations. And seeing the time-etched face of his great grandmother reminds us all of our own histories and the importance of remembering those that came before us and being remembered by those that come after us. In this age of the self-absorption, to see characters care about something beyond themselves is definitely worth shedding a few cathartic tears.