I reviewed “Coco” for Punch Drunk Movies a couple of weeks ago. I stand by my words there, but in the interest of space and simplicity I left out some of my more conflicted feelings about the film. What follows is a “special edition” of that review with those conflictions put back in, helpfully italicized. Let’s call it my, “Yes, but…” review.
“Coco” must be a good movie. Its screening was anything but ideal: screaming kids, loud preshow music, a late start, and all our phones confiscated beforehand, then returned in a completely disorganized manner afterward (mine was even given to the wrong person). Through all of that, though, I still ended up enjoying “Coco.” That has to mean something.
Taking place in Mexico, the story focuses on Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a young guitarist who hides his musical passion from his extended family who, for generations, have banned music from their household. When Miguel needs a guitar to enter a local talent contest (his grandmother destroys his upon its discovery), he borrows one from the crypt of Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a legendary singer who, Miguel suspects, secretly was his great, great grandfather. But he does so during the Day of the Dead festival, and the theft magically sends him to the afterlife. Having only until sunrise to get back home to the world of the living (if he doesn’t, he will become a permanent resident), Miguel embarks on a voyage with the help of Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a drifter in the underworld and fellow musical talent, to find de la Cruz, as only a family member can send him back to the world of the living.
The movie looks amazing. The characters’ expressive faces are impressive, even the skeletons (the spirits in the afterlife are all devoid of flesh), which isn’t simple, considering they don’t have the benefit of skin and muscles to form expressions. But it’s the presentation of the afterlife itself that’s extraordinary. It’s like the Mexico pavilion from Epcot (one of my favorite places in that Disney theme park) come to life, but acid tinged; an art-deco dreamland covered in a constant mild-blue haze with pink and green neon accents as far as the eye can see.
Yes, but…the beauty is only skin deep, all surface. I feel like we never get to fully explore this world, get into its nooks and crannies. The visuals reminded me of a videogame with amazing backgrounds that remain just that, backgrounds. They’re far away, places that you can’t get closer to and explore.
The inner workings of the afterlife aren’t overly explained, but what is revealed is imaginative. It’s awfully bureaucratic, with rules and regulations governing the movement between the corporeal and spirit worlds. In order to visit your family on the day of the dead, for example, you can only go if they keep a photo of you in a shrine. Facial recognition software (what kind of OS is used in the afterlife? Linux?) is used at transportation hubs that scan the skeletal faces, which then have to be matched to their photo in the real world. It’s funny and clever, but the idea that bureaucracy follows you into the afterlife is a depressing thought.
The movie also runs at a nice clip with a tight script and a story that is worked out nicely, to the point that I was surprised by some twists and turns by the end. Should I have seen them coming? Sure. But I was into the movie enough that I just went with the flow, and what seemed to be a straightforward story added some unexpected layers and complications by the third act.
But…despite my surprise in the theater, the movie, it turns out, is actually quite predictable. Predictable in a clockwork precision kind of way, but predictable nonetheless. (Light spoilers ahead:) A villain is revealed right before the third act, and the way that reveal connects Miguel with his family and with Hector, especially, is important. I just don’t know if a villain was needed to accomplish that goal. Pixar has often cited their admiration and emulation of the work of Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli films. But those films, like “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro,” showed an aversion to traditional plot structures and characters, an aversion I never much notice in Pixar’s films. They are more emotionally resonant and thoughtful than many of their American animated counterparts like the “Ice Age” and “Shrek” movies, but they still clearly adhere to traditional storytelling structures and characters, hence the unnecessary villain in order to kick the film into its third act and into high gear. Even though the last act works, I would have been really impressed with the film if the writers (Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich) and directors (Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina) had leaned into something a little more unexpected and a little more thoughtful than what they went with in the end.
At least the movie doesn’t resort to tacky modern references or pop music, and like most animated family films these days, “Coco” also has some adult appeal. Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley), for example, makes an appearance in the afterlife. I’m sure most kids couldn’t care less, but it’s a great reference for grownups. I liked that her full name is never even mentioned. The filmmakers trust the audience to figure it out, and with her famous unibrow (churlish side note: Why do these skeletons keep their hair?) and her properly surreal art work (a giant crying cactus, and a papaya whose seeds come to life), it’s hard not to.
“Coco” is good. Plain and simple. Is it anything more than that? Probably not. Does it need to be? Probably not. But if I can like it despite the annoying distractions around me, there’s a good chance most people will love it.
But… there could have been so much more to the film: a fuller world with characters and situations not confined to basic Script 101 strictures. So, while it didn’t need to be anything more than good, wouldn’t it have been great if it had been?
NOTE: The movie is unnecessarily presented in 3D. Why is Hollywood still insisting this is a thing? Tell you what, pay for 2D and watch the movie with your underwear over your head. It’ll be the same experience, but you’ll pay half the price.
NOTE 2: The movie is preceded by a “short” film, “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure,” a mini-sequel to “Frozen.” It’s quite cute, but I overheard a wee tyke from my row ask, “When’s Coco gonna start?” I felt the same way.