In Pixar’s Coco, a young Mexican boy named Miguel visits the spirits of his ancestors in the Land of the Dead, where he’s gone to escape his parents’ refusal to let him pursue his dream of being a musician. Watching Coco is also like traveling through a graveyard, although the phantoms that haunt it are not people but movies. With Pixar now in its third decade of feature filmmaking, it’s inevitable that patterns would become more established and new tricks turn old. But in Coco the ghosts are so transparent you can see right through them, and when the movie’s over, they evaporate altogether.
Coco’s Miguel, voiced by 12-year-old newcomer Anthony Gonzalez, is a misfit who, like Brave’s Merida and A Bug’s Life’s Flik, has dreams too big for the confines of his immediate surroundings. Like Wall-E and Toy Story’s Buzz, he is forced into unfamiliar territory where he feels more out of place than ever. And like Ratatouille’s Remy and the Incredible family, he discovers that the things that set him apart are also what make him special—different from, and maybe ever-so-slightly better than, the people around him.
Coco is dramatically different from previous Pixars in that its cast of characters is entirely Latino, and so, for the most part, are the actors who give them voice. (One exception is John Ratzenberger, who continues his streak of appearing in every Pixar film to date with a small cameo.) In other words, it’s not Kubo and the Two Strings, whose story and images drew heavily from Japanese myth but only cast actors of Japanese ancestry in minor roles. It was directed by Pixar regular Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3), but co-directed by 32-year-old Adrian Molina, who also shares credit on the screenplay (with Matthew Aldrich) and story, and after coming under fire for attempting to trademark the film’s original title, Día de los Muertos, Disney hired some of its critics, including cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz and playwright Octavio Solis, as cultural consultants. (As for the similarities with Jorge Gutierrez’s The Book of Life, which is an animated movie in which the living are dispatched to the next world, well, there’s enough Land of the Dead for everyone.)
So at least Coco doesn’t look or sound like every other Pixar movie, especially once Miguel inadvertently slips out of the land of the living. He’s only trying to borrow a guitar from the tomb of Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a legendary singing star whose statue stands in the town square, emblazoned with his motto, “Seize your moment.” (Shades, and then some, of Ratatouille’s “Anyone can cook.”) Ernesto is Miguel’s idol, but he can only worship him at a makeshift shrine in his family’s attic because his parents, and especially his shoe-wielding abuelita (Renée Victor) are militantly opposed to music of any kind. The reasons for their militant anti-musicality are neatly illustrated by the family’s ofrenda, laid out for the Day of the Dead with pictures of departed family members arranged in a neat pyramid, and, at the top, a photo of his great-grandmother with her husband by her side, his face torn away in anger and a guitar in his free hand.
Strumming away on Ernesto’s guitar transports Miguel to the Land of the Dead, along with a floppy stray dog whose presence feels more like a matter of obligation—sidekick, check—than a product of Pixar’s vaunted story-building process. The city, girded by gates where bored customs agents ensure that the spirits’ relatives have put out their picture before giving them a day pass to the land of the living, is a magnificent sight, with brightly colored stacks of buildings spiraling into the sky, its streets filled with incandescent animal spirits called alebrijes. It’s as if Blade Runner mated with a Christmas tree. But once Miguel finds his footing and sets on a quest to meet the spirit of his long-dead musical idol, who he has also come to believe is the faceless man in his great-grandmother’s photos, the movie slips into a familiar rut and the scenery fades into the background.
He’s joined along the way by Héctor (Gael García Bernal), a wayward soul whose loved ones have apparently forgotten him. With no photo on an ofrenda, there’s no way for him to cross over, and once the last living memory of him slips away, he too will vanish. Even in the Land of the Dead, you only exist so long as you are remembered, and while this is no problem for Ernesto de la Cruz, whose mansion is piled high with the offerings of his legions of fans, it’s a pressing issue for Héctor, who is wracked with periodic spasms as his second and final death grows closer.
This dual death—the body dies first, and the rest when the living let go—has been a feature of Disney movies such as Big Hero 6, and it parallels the fate of Inside Out’s Bing Bong, but attaching it to a real person instead of a childhood toy indulges a streak of sentimentality that Pixar, even at its most tear-jerking, has steered clear of. Nemo’s mom wasn’t resurrected in the third act, and when Toy Story 3’s characters were sliding into the incinerator, we couldn’t comfort ourselves with the idea that at least they’d be remembered when they were gone. The idea has its roots in Día de los Muertos, but it’s reduced to its most banal and palliative form. Like the movie’s comfortably rounded-out skeletons, it’s a harsh reality so softened it’s virtually unrecognizable. At least The Book of Life had angry gods to keep things interesting.
When Disney acquired Pixar in 2006, the hope was that Pixar’s John Lasseter would infuse some of Pixar’s creative magic into Disney’s animation. Instead it feels like Pixar has gotten swallowed, locked into making more Toy Storys and more Carses and borrowing from Disney’s toolbox rather than sharing its own. At least a movie like Finding Dory has an original to steer clear of and try and best. What’s more worrisome is “original” movies like Coco that already feel like sequels the first time out.