Directed by: Lee Unkrich Written by: Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich
Coco marks at least two major innovations in the history of Pixar filmmaking. One is that it is Pixar’s first “ethnically” themed film (well there’s Ratatouille and Brave, but it’s Pixar’s first ethnically themed film where insensitive cultural representation was a risk). The other is that it is the first Pixar film to revolve around a child: 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez).
Coco’s Mexicanness is essential, as it takes place during The Day of the Dead: a holiday with traditions that are explicitly explained in the film. That said, Coco’s focus on a demographic of humans, should not be viewed as an abandonment of the Pixar tradition of making films about groupings-of-things. I once came across an internet meme that described Pixar’s approach as follows: “what if toys had feelings?, what if bugs had feelings?, what if monsters had feelings?….what if feelings had feelings?” Coco follows this pattern by asking “what if the dead had feelings?” Coco thus could have been a Tim Burtonesque movie: a tale of gory skeletons looking for meaning in a dreary world. By taking its cues from Mexican culture, however, Coco came up with a concept of the “dead” that is far more profound than the slapstick gore-fest it could have otherwise been. Coco’s dead are not defined by being corpses; in fact, their skeleton forms are quite cartoonish and retain humanoid eyeballs and hair. Rather they are defined by their relationship to the living: a drive not to be forgotten by those on the other side.
Coco’s being centred around a child, on the other hand, was a more questionable tactic. The compelling nature of many Pixar’s protagonists comes from the fact that they are flawed despite being superficially mature. Toy Story’s Woody is beacon of good citizenry who must relearn compassion when he discovers he is in fact highly jealous of challengers to his top-dog status. Finding Nemo’s Marlin must overcome his overwhelming fear of all things-potentially-dangerous. Up’s Carl deals with loss, by committing full heartedly to a goal he set earlier in life, forcing him to relearn how to find happiness when life sends him in new directions. While Coco’s Miguel can perhaps be a bit hot-headed at times, for the most part, he is a perfectly reasonable child, surrounded by often unreasonable adults. While admittedly, a child might be a good fit for a story that teaches about a cultural holiday (an adult would be less likely to need training in their own cultural traditions), Miguel in my opinion, is ultimately not as memorable as some of Pixar’s other protagonists. I would add, as a thought experiment, Coco might have benefited from centering instead around the skeleton Héctor (Gael Garcia Bernal). While Hector seems like a natural sidekick-type, his story is not unlike A Bug’s Life’s Flik (with some darker undertones). (I suppose this gives rise to the parallel thought experiment of what A Bug’s Life would be like if Dot, and not Flik, was its hero).
Plot-wise Coco is bolstered by the novelty of its world of the dead, and that world’s intricately imagined scenery. Its narrative itself is perhaps a bit too plain-stated early on and feels a bit derived from Monster’s Inc., Inside Out, and Up at later moments. That said, one recycled trope, a reference to A Bug’s Life’s Heimlich, is fresh and funny in the Coco context.
I often explain my love for A Bug’s Life as follows: though its premise is that it’s a story about bugs, it might be a good film even without Pixar’s “What if X had feelings formula.” A Bug’s Life is the story of a naïve but spunky inventor who accidentally hires an army of clowns to liberate his people from a colonizing bully: that sounds like it could be a good story even if it starred ordinary humans. Coco, on the other hand, is not necessarily more than its Pixar formula, as without its particular brand of vibrant skeletons (and a persistent street dog) its story would not necessarily stand out. Then again, that is a mere thought experiment, and as it actually is (with its skeletons) Coco is a fun, emotional film that like its Pixar predecessors will linger as a crowd pleaser for audiences of all ages.