In the fictional Santa Cecilia, Mexico, the Riveras are a family of renowned cobblers going all the way back to Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach), who took up the practice after being abandoned by her musician husband with their young daughter, Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía). Imelda swore that no member of her family would ever study or even listen to music. Now dead, her great-great grandson, 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), dreams of becoming a musician, despite the family tradition. When Miguel discovers that his absentee great-great grandfather may in fact be Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the most famous musician in Mexico, he sprints off to the singer’s mausoleum.
With a strum of de la Cruz’ guitar, Miguel is transported to the land of the dead. He must receive his ancestors’ blessing before the end of Día de Muertos or remain there forever, but Imelda will only give it to him on the condition that he forswear music, and none of his other ancestors will go against their matriarch. With the help of Hector (Gael García Bernal), Miguel’s only choice is to seek out and win the blessing of de la Cruz himself.
Coco is definitely lesser Pixar, though it’s hardly fair to expect any movie to live up to a standard set by modern classics like Toy Story, Wall-E and the more recent Inside Out.
As a brand, Pixar promises incomparable animation and a gracefully handled yet emotionally mature story, and Coco doesn’t quite deliver in either area. The Land of the Dead is intricate and gorgeous, but the humans are unconvincing and vaguely reminiscent of the cartoonish sauropods in The Good Dinosaur. Pixar has traditionally struggled animating humans, but broke through with fantastic ones in the mid-’00s with The Incredibles, Wall-E and Up, so seeing less detailed people now makes it seem like they just weren’t a priority. As proven by certain other Disney properties, even the most elaborate films will still sometimes produce very Uncanny Valley humans if they’re not paying attention.
From a story perspective, Coco takes much more of a lead from the simple-minded preaching of a Cars than the nuanced internal and external conflicts of a Monsters Inc. The film is nowhere near as poignant as it should be. Miguel learns more and more about the details of his heritage and its importance as it goes on, but his arc is simply from hating his parents and grandparents for not letting him play music to loving them because, you know, whatever.
Coco is set up to both challenge broad assumptions about the importance of family and tradition while reinforcing them on an individual basis, and it kind of drops the ball. It skirts away from really addressing the wounds and grudges at the heart of its story. It’s emotionally tame in a way the best Pixar films aren’t, and in a way that we specifically praise them for not being.
Mexico has been invading the box office recently. Directors Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro Iñárritu have frequented the Oscars stage, and Coco represents the second animated feature themed entirely around Día de Muertos, the country’s most recognizable festival, in just three years — with that massive set piece from Spectre coming in between.
Even as half of the U.S. chants about building a wall to keep them out, Mexican children will now be able to carry their culture to school with them on lunch boxes like Lightning McQueen on the strength of a film that’s outperforming Justice League over Thanksgiving weekend and is being called remarkably faithful by Hispanic critics. This film can’t help but do a lot of good just by existing, even if it isn’t the strongest effort.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.