Movie Review: Sweet as Coco

Pixar Studios has released another movie destined to be a classic despite some flaws, set in a Mexican-inspired afterlife.

You’re never too old to enjoy a quality animated movie, even if they’re heavily marketed toward children. Especially if that movie is from Pixar Studios.

Though they’ve had more missteps than home runs lately, no other studio produces films that can strike a chord with any age group like Pixar. This has never been truer with the studio’s 19th feature length release Coco, a parade of a picture that puts a lot of faith in its younger audiences with adult themes.

The film is frantic, scattershot and sometimes loses track of its own plot. Once the credits play, it’s clear screenwriters Adrian Molina (storyboard artist for Toy Story 3) and Matthew Aldrich had a specific vision for the movie’s phenomenal second half, with no schematics on how to build up to it.

There are many levels to the story that plays out in just 109 minutes.

The film takes place in a Mexican village and follows Miguel, a 12-year-old whose greatest (and only) ambition is to play the guitar.

Unfortunately for him, he comes from a family who has entirely banned music due to past events — his grandmother jumps at the sight of an instrument.

Miguel strums away regardless, a secret known only by Dante, a scrappy hairless dog who follows Miguel everywhere with his eyes crossed and tongue drooping. Miguel learns his great-great grandfather was a musical legend, and on the night of a talent show, decides to grave rob his old guitar to participate. (Long story.)

It’s a bad move, because it just so happens to be Dia de Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead. The stolen guitar sends Miguel to the Mexican afterlife, a (somewhat visually unimaginative) landscape where he meets old family members long deceased.

They agree to help send him back within the 24-hour limit before he gets stuck there permanently, but on the condition he gives up his guitar-strumming dreams.

Phew. That covers the first 15 minutes. The plot bounds along from there, but director Lee Unkrich (a Pixar veteran known for Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc. and some of the Toy Stories) does a good job of layering elements so it’s easy for kids to follow.

Still, it’s a frenetic first half. It feels like Molina and Aldrich whipped up the story elements on the notes app of their smartphones while also texting or tapping at a game, and also driving.

The only weak parts of the movie are in the first half, which is misleadingly childish. Young actor Anthony Gonzalez does a great job at making Miguel the pragmatic, sometimes irritating adolescent he is.

At one point it’s Miguel’s main goal to participate in a talent show that never happens; later he participates in an entirely unrelated talent show, and leaves before the results are revealed. The plot could have used some conciseness.

Understanding the flaws of the first half is necessary to appreciate the high achievement the second half brings. There’s a very clear turning point where stray plot elements tie together, characters become sympathetic and even memorable, and the movie turns into a surprisingly deep coming of age tale. The highs achieved are worth the (comparably shallow) lows.

Pixar has influenced modern day animation for the better with films like Finding Nemo and the Toy Story trilogy by always putting heartwarming story first. Coco is just as powerful an achievement as these contemporary classics, and will join their ranks in the near future.

(I say that as someone who has outgrown the targeted demographic of these films, hopefully. This film reminded me of being enchanted by Monsters Inc. when I was a young’un.)

The animation pulls from an eclectic color scheme, but looked oddly muted on the screen. (My theater played standard, not 3D.) Nothing stands out visually except for the afterlife’s “spirit animals,” brightly colored creatures that inhabit the land of spirits. They’re the most interesting design choice made to add character to the otherwise mundane depiction of the spirit world.

It’s been a sluggish year for animated films — Pixar’s earlier release Cars 3 disappointed, and Despicable Me 3 and The LEGO Batman Movie were enjoyable with no longevity.

It’s ironic Coco is about a trip to the dead, when it’s saving this year’s other movies in the same genre from it. ••