On Dia de los Muertos (i.e. Day of the Dead), young musician Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) breaks away from his family’s ban on music to perform at the annual festival. In order to do that, he must “borrow” the guitar of famous actor/musician Ernesto de la Cruz (Bemjamin Bratt) from the mortuary… but in doing so he finds himself trapped in the Land of the Dead where he must escape his equally music-hating ancestors to find de la Cruz (who the boy believes to be his great-great-grandfather) and get his blessing to return to the living before sunrise, or be trapped among the dead forever.
Along the way, the child is joined by a disheveled but musically-inclined vagabond named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) and a mangy street dog. Their adventure takes them through the seemingly endless Land of the Dead, on the run from ancestors and ferocious spirit guides, where Miguel learns an awful truth – even the spirits of the dead cease to exist if they are forgotten by the living. When Hector starts to fade as quickly as Miguel becomes a spirit, the race against time becomes doubly important.
Of course, Coco is a Pixar movie, so things can never be as simple as finding the object (or person) you seek. Things are not always as they seem when the phrase “dead men tell no tales” is proven false as sometimes even the dead lie.
The opening scenes of Coco are filled with amusing hijinks, a solid backstory for the film, and – unfortunately – told in a voiceover that feels like something we’ve heard before. In fact, the entire movie feels like something we’ve seen before as Pixar seems to have decided that Hero’s Journey stories are the only ones that should ever be told these days. It seems like most of their movies now involve going on a road trip of sorts in search of a person/place/thing before it’s too late (Toy Story, Inside Out, Finding Nemo).
Adding to this paint-by-numbers formula, the lead character is someone wanting desperately to break out of his normal life to become something…extraordinary. In this case a musician from a family who hates music, which is similar to a rat that wants to cook or a princess yearning to be a warrior. At this point, what used to be fun and new and exciting has become played out and stale.
That’s not to say Coco is a bad movie – it’s not. Filled with beautiful animation and bright, vibrant colors, it’s a marvel to look at. There’s a healthy dose of music, portraying a sort of fusion of mariachi and 50’s rock. And, perhaps most importantly, there is very real and very powerful emotion packed in. I’m man enough to admit that this movie made me openly weep! Twice! If Pixar does one thing well (you know, other than making boatloads of cash), it’s knowing how to hit you right in the feels! This movie certainly delivered with the familial drama that tugs at your heart strings.
The problem with Coco is that whole pesky middle section. It starts strong, and ends powerfully, but in between it suffers from slow pacing and predictable formulaic structure. They attempted to throw some twists and surprises in there, and there actually was one twist that I was shocked by and didn’t see coming… but everything was so by-the-books that anyone who’s watches a few Pixar movies can figure out exactly how the movie is going to play out, because they all kind of work the same at this point. I’m really hoping they break the mold and do something unique and exciting next year with The Incredibles 2.
Despite the 30-ish minute lag in the middle of the film where my interest started to wane, Coco was an enjoyable film with an emotional punch. Unfortunately the same-ol’-same-ol’ formula kept it from being the truly exciting animated film that I’d want to watch on repeat. Good, but not great. But hey, at least it was better than the Cars franchise, right?