Coco: Calculated Magic

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.

** (out of 4)

Almost every single Pixar movie features some version of what I like to call a “sentimental family scene” – namely, a scene in which the characters either fondly reminisce of good times gone by (Toy Story 2, Cars, Up, Inside Out) or engage in an extremely emotional reunion or parting (Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, WALL-E, Toy Story 3, Brave, The Good Dinosaur, Finding Dory). Once upon a time, these moments came on the heels of well-developed stories, and they consequently felt like genuine tributes to the importance of love and companionship. But as the quality of the Pixar brand has declined in recent years, these scenes have gradually grown more repetitive, heavy-handed, and forced. With Toy Story 3, Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, and Finding Dory, it got to the point where these would-be heartfelt moments simply came off as formulaic, manipulative attempts to make audiences cry.

Without going into spoilers, one can safely say that Pixar’s latest movie, Coco, plays host to multiple sentimental family scenes. But in director Lee Unkrich’s defense, they arrive in the wake of a story that does try to be thoughtful about its subject matter. After all, the film’s initial premise – a young guitarist named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is spurned by his music-hating family; he runs away and stumbles into the Land of the Dead – confronts the age-old dilemma of whether children should put themselves or their family first. Miguel’s dealings with a lonely skeletal spirit named Hector (Gael García Bernal), moreover, evoke Homeric, surprisingly weighty themes of legacy, the inevitability of death, and our instinctive need to be remembered by others. And the film’s central conflict revolves around a case of “stolen glory” that easily recalls introspective, pessimistic masterpieces like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.

Unfortunately, despite its efforts to create something meaningful, Coco eventually leaves you dissatisfied on just about every front. On the most elementary of levels, the storyline abounds in overly convenient plot contrivances; in particular, its resolution of the aforementioned children-family dilemma relies so heavily on coincidences and last-minute saves that the entire conflict comes off as an artificial setup. Furthermore, it’s also worth noting that Coco’s depiction of a world beyond our own doesn’t carry the originality of similar works like Alice in Wonderland (the novel) and Spirited Away. The dead people Miguel meets, after all, go through customs, attend concerts in stadiums, and show up to big parties like normal human beings; with the possible exception of the spirit animals that chase Miguel around, Unkrich’s conception of a fantasy realm generally feels like little more than a lazy, superficially-embellished knockoff of our own.

Ultimately, however, the biggest problem with Coco is that it doesn’t make many demands of the viewer. Many of its aforementioned antecedents (Spirited Away, Liberty Valance) punctuated their plotlines with unhurriedly meditative sequences, as though to challenge viewers’ reflexive preference for stories in constant motion. But instead of trying something similar, Unkrich panders too heavily to his audiences’ instinctive, passive desire to be kept engaged and content. Brief moments of contemplation are overshadowed by the movie’s insistence on propelling us through plot point after plot point; moreover, these turns build up to an ending that bends over backwards to give the bad guy his comeuppance, the good guy his due reward, and the audience a perfectly-rounded feeling of uplift. Unkrich seems all too aware that Coco’s box office receipts won’t be great if the film feels “boring” or “sad”; to that end, the script remains largely focused on advancing the plot for the plot’s sake, and its greater ideas eventually get lost in the shuffle.

I hasten to add that as a simple, “I got two hours to kill” piece of entertainment, Coco works. The animation mesmerizes, the plot never has a dull moment, and Pixar deserves a shout-out for deciding to bring Mexican culture to the big screen. If this were a film like Moana – a traditional Disney movie that never claimed or tried to be anything but traditional – all of that would be enough. But this is Pixar, and the fact that Unkrich introduces ideas regarding death, fame, and family makes the movie’s ultimate shallowness that much more frustrating. As a result, when Coco’s version of the sentimental family scene finally rolls around, it’s anything but a touching round-out to a fulfilling story. Rather, like its counterpart in Inside Out, it feels strained and calculated – a lamentable testament to the fact that Pixar has lost its golden touch.

Remember me, you ask? I think I’ll pass.

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.


Coco (2017)

Voices: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt

Running Time: 109 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG, “for thematic elements.”

Produced by: Darla K. Anderson

Written by: Adrian Molina, Matthew Aldrich

Directed by: Lee Unkrich