Movie Review: Coco
Coco is a thoroughly entertaining, if not always fun movie. Arrive 20 minutes late.
Thanks to Thanksgiving, Disney/Pixar’s newest animated film Coco released early. Which is great, as between Coco, Thor: Ragnarok, and Justice League, you have a lot of good movies to watch right now. Coco is going to be the go to family movie, and that fits: Coco is all about family. I really liked this film, and I would recommend you see it. I would also recommend coming to the movie late, and I’m going to tell you why before I delve into the movie proper.
Before Coco begins, Disney/Pixar decided to give us an animated “short”: Olaf’s Frozen Adventure. It’s a new thing that Disney/Pixar have been doing, putting a Pixar short in front of a Disney film and vice versa. In Moana, the Pixar short was a nice amuse bouche, a cute little trifle. With Olaf, we get a bloated 22 minute waste of time. Yeah, the “short” is almost half an hour. Also, it isn’t Olaf’s adventure at all. He gets one song, and Anna and Elsa get four. This is just Frozen 1.5.
It shows a disturbing lack of confidence. The entire affair reeks of “the execs don’t think a film about Mexican culture can stand on its own, so here are your favorite white girls!”. A few people in the audience audibly exclaimed “Get on with it!” at the showing I attended. I agree. Olaf should have been a free download code you got with your ticket. It is a decent holiday themed affair, one that families would probably enjoy as a gift to watch once they get home. It shouldn’t have been an unescapable marketing ploy used to prop up Coco. Because Coco can stand on it’s own just fine.
Miguel comes from a big family with a storied history. The great-great grandfather of the family was a brilliant Mariachi, and he left the family to follow his dreams. The Matriarch of the family was left holding the bag, as well as a young daughter named Coco. She made ends meet, and her industrious nature led to a thriving shoe business. The Rivera family has become a cornerstone of their village, and each generation has gone into the family shoe business. They’ve also, to a man, sworn off music. The great-great grandfather is a forgotten pariah, cut out of all the family photos.
Photos are important, you see. On Dia De Los Muertos, the souls of loved ones come to visit, provided they have a photo on someone’s altar. The remembrance of the dead is a big cultural tradition. The only person alive that still remembers the wandering Mariachi is Coco, who is very old and very forgetful. Miguel looks up to this familial outcast, as he too wants to become a famous Mariachi. That’s a big no-no in the Rivera family, and it puts him at odds with everyone in his family.
A family blowout on the Day of the Dead leads Miguel to run away. He runs a little too far away when a cursed guitar turns him into a spirit. To get back, he’ll have to make some odd friends, flex his musical muscle, and learn to appreciate family.
El Musical Muy Espactaculo!
As I stated with Moana, Disney/Pixar has their style of CGI animation down cold now. As such, I was not surprised by the visual excellence in Coco. The people are charming, the light and water effects are fantastic, and the colors pop. There are a few new tricks, such as Miguel’s transparency as he becomes a spirit as well as a few framing shots that are great. One scene where Miguel makes his way through a crowd at a party stuck out with me in particular.
Where Coco really hums is the music. The movie finds a perfect balance of polished and authentic music. You can tell when professional versions of a song are used; they sound like a music video waiting to happen. But you also get those songs performed in character, and the contrast is great. The songs go from touching to fun to outright ribald at a merry pace. All the voice actors do their own singing, and I honestly never knew Benjamin Bratt could belt it like he does.
The song and dance is just the tip of the iceberg, however.
A Deeper Dive
The crown jewel in Coco is it’s embrace, both deep and superficial, or Mexican culture. You get trope level displays, from Mariachis to Luchadores to Mexican Alebrijes (spirit animals). But you also get historical and cultural references. The spirit world is chock a block full of Mexican celebrities. My favorite by far was El Santo, but Neil and I are a little biased about that man’s career.
Traditions and artifacts of Mexican history are presented lovingly. Coco understands you might be a tourist, but it never condescends like you are a dumb gringo. If you get the deeper dives, hooray. If not (I’m no expert, I’m sure I missed as much as I caught, if not more), the film breezes by to the next thing without any “wink-wink, did you see what we did there?”.
A Few Bones to Pick
As much as I’d like to call Coco a perfect film, it is not. I noted at the beginning that the film is entertaining if not always fun. There were two elements that dinged the fun for me, and they seemed purposefully engineered to exasperate. I’m referring to Miguel’s family and his Xolo dog Dante.
Miguel’s family is oppressive. They are meant to be. Miguel’s abuela is just as hard headed as he is, and their incalcitrant nature drives a lot of the plot. This is a story about learning to love your family, even if they aren’t perfect. The second thing this dynamic does is bring the audience right into Miguel’s shoes. He embodies the frustrated, powerless child (think Kevin from Home Alone), and the frustration I felt at how the family runs over Miguel’s dreams brought me right into that mindset. It’s effective, but annoying.
Speaking of annoying, we have Dante. Dante is the Disney™ companion for this film, and he’s meant to be comic relief and a Doggy Ex Machina for the plot. He’s a rascal; a dumb dog that always gets into trouble. He also does his shtick for a few seconds longer than I could tolerate. It goes from silly to annoying. Luckily, as a stray is wont to do, he takes off on his own and disappears for large parts of the film. I looked forward to his absences.
Coco es “Un Poco Loco”, and You’ll Love That
Those minor quibbles aside, I really liked Coco. It’s silly and touching, a loving look at family and Mexican culture. The filmmaking aspects are top notch, from the sights and sounds to the pacing and plot. I’d heartily recommend this film for either a solo or family viewing. Just spend a little extra time getting snacks before you get to your seat.