By Charles Chen ‘21, Dartmouth Film Society
Critical pieces bemoaning Pixar’s apparently terminal decline are a dime a dozen these days. Where Pixar was once defined by an almost ruthless dedication to innovation and the eschewal of sequel-izing, now the animation studio can perhaps better be described with a single phrase: Toy Story 4. Or better yet, Disney.
But Pixar’s newest release Coco (which was screened January 26 by Hopkins Center Film) is a stark reminder of what made Pixar an industry standard in the first place. It is a masterpiece in typical Pixar fashion, blending truly breathtaking graphics with creativity and thoughtfulness, witty humor with true heart that kept an audience of ages spanning perhaps 60 years laughing and wiping away tears as one. Perhaps better than any other studio, Pixar still gets what it means to be human in all its irrational facets.
Miguel Rivera, an aspiring musician, is a 12-year-old boy living with his family Santa Cecilia, Mexico. A family of shoemakers, the Rivera family is militantly anti-music, banning all forms of it from their family compound after Miguel’s great-great-grandma and her daughter were left by her musician husband in his pursuit of fame and fortune. After a confrontation with his family leaves his own guitar destroyed, Miguel discovers that he may be the descendant of his musical idol Ernesto de la Cruz. When Miguel steals into the crypt of the long-passed star to “borrow” Ernesto’s famous guitar in order to compete in a musical competition, he is transported to the Land of the Dead. In order to return home before sunrise, he embarks on a journey of self-discovery with the aid of the departed souls of his family, a trickster named Hector, and even Ernesto himself. The movie takes heavy inspiration from the Dia de Muertos, from the breathtakingly colorful and ethereal towers of the Land of the Dead to its equally colorful denizens.
Immediately, one tends to compare Coco with Pixar’s last hit, 2015’s Inside Out, a saga of anthropomorphized emotions in the mind of a young girl’s head trying to cope with the trauma of moving. Compared to what is still a completely unique plot and setting, Coco is comparably mundane. Movies inspired by the Dia de Muertos are by no means a rarity—2014’s The Book of Life come to mind. Even Scooby-Doo has done a direct to DVD movie inspired by the holiday. The plot is even more rote—if one were to gather all the movies where the hero is pursuing a forbidden talent with all the movies where the hero must return home before sunrise, a small singularity would probably be formed from the sheer amount of mass in one place. But Pixar’s true strength has never been creating totally unique scenarios—talking toys, talking cars and superheroes aren’t exactly mind blowing concepts—but rather in how its filmmakers tell the stories, finding the twist and tone that makes a Pixar movie a Pixar movie. Too many animated movie get stuck on a clever premise (“What if a baby … was also a boss?”) that render them empty vehicles of forced humor, suitable only for consumption by children and less capable adults like myself. Pixar’s secret is finding the perfect balance.
It’s hard to fully describe just how gorgeous Coco’s visuals are. The Land of the Dead is an explosion of fluorescent colors, huge towers rising from ancient stone ruins decorated for one enormous never ending party. And though the plot may be rote, Coco more than makes up for it through its heartfelt characters and humor. One particular scene where Miguel meets the spirit of famous painter Frida Kahlo and she shows him a truly bizarre avante-garde show involving cactus and fire and avocados, as well as basically any scene with Dante, Miguel’s adopted hairless street dog with a tongue of enormous proportions and a heart of gold (a character I have identified with on a deeply personal level) left the entire audience rolling with laughter. The humor is never forced and has that fascinating universal nature Pixar seems to hit with all of its great releases, where 8-year-olds can laugh with 20-years-olds who laugh with 60-year-olds all for the same punchlines. Beyond just the humor, for all its simplicity the story was heartfelt and resonant. The characters were each unique enough to be memorable and yet still genuine enough to emphasize with—I recall a particularly tense moment with Hector towards the end of the film where the entire audience was silence except for some muffled sobs. The delicate yet graceful manner with which the movie dealt with the dementia and eventual passing of the film’s namesake, Miguel’s great-grandmother Coco, was admirable and dignified,and hits home for anyone who’s had to watch a loved one in their twilight years.
Coco may not be the most visually advanced Pixar film (The Good Dinosaur, Pixar’s otherwise completely forgettable 2015 film about… a good dinosaur, still stands out for its world shattering visuals), nor the most unique, but it is a masterpiece because it marries all of its elements in just the right way. I don’t recall finding another movie as funny as Coco the entire year, and yet at the same time I found myself invested emotionally into Miguel’s journey. Coco is a reminder of why Pixar is still deserving of our adoration, blasphemous “franchise reboot” Toy Story 4 notwithstanding, and is not to be missed.