Coco tells the story of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a young Mexican boy who wants to follow in the footsteps of his idol, musician Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). But, Miguel’s family forbids music. He runs away and ends up transported to the Land of the Dead where his departed family members try to send him back. But, not before Miguel meets his idol and gains his blessing to pursue music.
What follows is a fairly typical piece of Disney fare. But that means it’s a solid, heartwarming, and surprising tale that takes its time to get to somewhere really interesting.
The Formula Works
No other movie studio knows exactly how to push the pleasure centers of theatergoers’ brains like Disney. Their calculated ability to make audiences laugh and cry is a true magic spell. That can be a bit numbing for a movie like Coco until things take a complicated and welcome turn.
You’ll get everything you want from a Disney movie out of Coco. A precocious protagonist who wants to follow their dream of a better life but learns a valuable lesson in the process? Miguel checks that box with ample aplomb. A goofball sidekick that we’ll come to love and discover hidden depths about? Héctor (Gael García Bernal) fits the bill and you’ll surely love him. How about a cute animal who tags along for the ride and is mass-produced into a plush toy? Meet Dante.
All of this sounds cynical but I’m actually commending Disney for being able to take certain frameworks and always find a way to make them feel fresh and compelling. Coco obviously benefits from its celebration of Mexican culture and the beautiful aesthetics that come with it. Personally, I loved the caricature cameos from Hispanic celebrities like Frida Kahlo and El Santo. As always, Disney films continue to raise the bar when it comes to visual splendor. Coco is gorgeous to look at.
But, what about the story?
Playing on Expectations
It’s tough to talk about why I really liked Coco without spoiling a big part of the movie. I’m not going to because it’s such an integral part of enjoying the film. What I will say is that Coco skips along for most of its running time at an enjoyable but fairly expected pace. A lot of typical beats play out for the first two acts of the story. They’re fun because the cast, animation, and music are all working in unison but they aren’t fresh or unanticipated.
When things ramp up in the third act, the themes of the movie become a lot more complex and difficult in the best of ways. Up until then, the movie feels like a very rote piece about bucking tradition and doing what you love. As soon as the plot allows a big monkey wrench to get thrown into the mix, the movie becomes a contemplation about idol worship and the scary cost of sacrificing everything for what you aspire to achieve.
It’s here that Coco finds its power and earns its tender moments. Granted, all the setup until then is vital but it’s not quite as engaging as what happens towards the end of the film. If these two could have balanced each other out a bit more, I think Coco would be one of the top three films in Pixar’s body of work.
Is Coco Good?
With all that said, I still heartily recommend Coco. It’s a feast for the eyes, the cast is pitch perfect, and the music is wonderful. Those are all par for the course when it comes to the majority of Disney’s big features. It’s in Coco‘s third act where the movie really becomes special and pays off everything that came before.
As a die-hard Disney fan — The Great Mouse Detective is so underappreciated, am I right? — this is a good addition to the Pixar canon. I cried at the ending so that’s gotta mean something, right?