Published Nov 22, 2017To those worried about the overall decrease in Pixar's output post-Toy Story 3, you can breathe easy. Sure, middling films like Cars 3 and The Good Dinosaur are outnumbering instant classics like Up and Inside Out, but you can't count out the fabled CG animation pioneers just yet. Coco has all the hallmarks of Pixar's best work, combining action and affect in a visually thrilling, culturally complex package.
Not that it's apparent from the start. At first, Coco seems like standard Pixar fare: a dreamer of a protagonist is presented an obstacle preventing them from achieving said dream, and then voyages into the visually-stunning unknown world on a journey of self-discovery. Here, that's aspiring musician Miguel, who struggles to hide his passion from his melophobic family, who are still reeling after Miguel's great-great-grandfather abandoned the family to tour as a musician. It's a little bit ham-fisted, but it's buoyed by the exploration of Mexican culture and folklore, centring on Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
The film finds Miguel transported to the Land of the Dead, forced to negotiate with his music-hating ancestors in order to return to life. It's fun to watch, sure, and playfully set up to keep the plot tense and engaging, but after a while it all starts to feel a little trite.
Then, the film starts ramping up the action, intrigue and — of course — emotions, leading to a tearjerker of a second half that stands among the fabled studio's best work. Pixar's calling card has been transposing human flaws and foibles onto non-human characters, from bugs and fish to action figures and robots, but by keeping these characters human, Coco delivers a full-scale exploration into the complexities of human motivation.
The superb voice acting certainly helps. Newcomer Anthony Gonzalez portrays young Miguel with nuance and passion, but he's deftly complemented by Gael García Bernal as skeletal trickster Hector and Benjamin Bratt as Miguel's idol, legendary musician Ernesto de la Cruz (imagine a Mexican Elvis). They imbue the film's by-the-numbers opening half with plenty of life, and their performances pay off in the finale. Bit players like Edward James Olmos and Alanna Ubach also give strong performances.
Pixar's best film since 2015's Inside Out, Coco doesn't come charging out of the gate, but by starting out heavy on the world-building, it makes the ending all the more satisfying. The film's balance between its cartoonish plot — it's a family film, after all — and subtle, emotional complexities make Coco a treat for the whole family.