It’s been two years since Pete Docter’s Inside Out, which is to say that it has been two years since Pixar has produced a worthwhile film. The studio has absorbed a few too many blows to the solar plexus over the past two years, where the announcement of a new film no longer yields clamoring anticipation but rather something a little more subdued. Their studio-as-auteur cred has taken a tumble with each subsequent announcement of a sequel, where their perceived commitment to artistry has been compromised by capital C Capitalism. Yes, I know, it all sounds terribly bleak, but for a studio that once produced treasures like Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up – all within two years (!) –it’s hard not to see the likes of Cars 3 or Finding Dory as terribly un-artistic diversions.
Which brings us to Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina’s Coco, the studio’s new film and certainly their most interesting since Inside Out. Depending on your temperament, Coco can toe the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation, and while I subscribe to the former, the latter can certainly nag on your consciousness the further away you step from the film. This is partly in response to the film and studio’s reliance on an emotionally effective but derivative mode of storytelling. In Pixar’s reluctance to deviate too far from its traditional approach, it imparts a sense of sameness along its broad spectrum of characters. When everyone’s the same, what makes the Mexican milieu of Coco different?
Coco opens on a beautifully animated papel picado sequence where Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year old boy longing to become a musician, details his family’s tumultuous history. His great-grandfather, an aspiring musician himself, left his wife and daughter in pursuit of his dream, leaving Miguel to be reared by generations of Mexican shoemakers that hate music. It’s an unsophisticated plot mechanic that yields the sort of generational conflict you’d expect out of a Pixar film, though such a maudlin dynamic feels more pronounced within Coco’s gorgeous Mexican milieu. The film takes place on the eve of the Day of the Dead and as Miguel careens through his small town, directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina vividly capture the setting, leading up to transition between Miguel’s hometown and the land of the dead that spirits him away.
Miyazaki’s seminal Studio Ghibili film Spirited Away frequently informs Coco’s initial passages, both in how they divide their worlds along with the adolescent anxieties they examine. So frequently Spirited Away’s Chihiro and Coco’s Miguel feel like kindred spirits in their refusal to yield to the natural world’s unbending restrictions. And as Miguel finds himself trapped in the spirit world unless he receives an asterisk-laced blessing from his family, his continued refusal to compromise his ambitions recalls Chihiro’s stubborn grace. Working alongside Héctor (Gael García Bernal), a con artist from the spirit world, Miguel hopes to eventually meet his idol Ernesto De La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the man he believes to be his great grandfather and perhaps convince him of providing him with the blessing he needs to return home.
Coco’s Miyazaki asides unfortunately yield to Pixar’s traditional dramatic modes. In essence, this film about a young Mexican boy’s journey to the land of the dead doesn’t get weird enough. Instead, it’s steeped in familiar, if not comforting, tropes. I required a film like Coco, something cozy and efficient, in the moment and can appreciate the warmth it exudes. But ultimately, it’s not the Pixar film I cherish alongside WALL-E or Up, if only for it’s inability to transcend beyond our expectations of what makes a Pixar film great.