Pixar Animation Studios has set a high bar for itself. From 1997 to 2010, the globally acclaimed studio released a series of Oscar-nominated films that pioneered animation, including “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” and “Ratatouille.” Children and adults alike wanted to soar to infinity and beyond with Buzz Lightyear; they wanted to have never-ending conversations with Dory, the forgetful blue tang fish; they wanted Remy, the rat to serve them food at Gusteau’s five-star restaurant. Unfortunately, “Coco,” Pixar’s latest film, doesn’t live up to the greatness of the studio’s past.
“Coco” follows the story of Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old boy who dreams of becoming a musician like his idol, the mariachi singer Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt). Sadly for Miguel, he grows up in a family that has banned music for generations. But on Dia de los Muertos, Miguel defies his family and finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead, where he comes face to face with his skeleton ancestors. With the help of the friendly Hector (voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal), Miguel goes on an adventure to find Ernesto and return to the Land of the Living before Miguel turns into a skeleton himself.
Right off the bat, “Coco” flies at a mile a minute, giving the audience only a few moments to breathe. We meet Miguel’s extended family (including his great-grandmother, the titular character) but barely spend any time with them before Miguel is whisked off on his adventure with his dog Dante. Once in the Land of the Dead, the film slows down and improves. Not only does it feature an unexpected twist, but the conflict is resolved in a heartfelt and emotional way — don’t be surprised if the waterworks begin in the final 10 minutes.
Unfortunately, the overlying plot of “Coco” feels generic and predictable. The idea of following a forbidden passion has been portrayed in everything from “Romeo and Juliet” to “Footloose,” and “Coco” doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself from that cliche. While “Coco” also brings new characters, worlds and culture to the table, the plot feels a little too formulaic.
“Coco” is not unprecedented in its unoriginality. It seems that, recently, Pixar has run out of original ideas. The studio has been reliant on sequels that have been inferior to their predecessors like “Cars 2” and “Finding Dory.” Even its attempts at originality have been lackluster, such as the forgettable “Brave” and “The Good Dinosaur.”
This is not to say that directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina do a poor job chronicling Miguel’s journey. The film features a trio of memorable characters, Miguel, Hector and Ernesto. Miguel is a memorable and relatable protagonist; after all, many have had a dream that their elders have denied. Gonzalez voices him with gusto and gives him a youthful excitement and enthusiasm. Hector, a lovable trickster, serves as Miguel’s guide in the Land of the Dead. The two build a strong emotional connection as they set off to find Ernesto, and we learn about Hector’s tragic past. One of the film’s most delightful scenes features Hector and Miguel performing a duet in a singing competition. Ernesto, an adored mariachi superstar, oozes charm and confidence thanks to Bratt’s vocal performance, which especially shines as Miguel meets his idol and discovers Ernesto’s true colors.
As per Pixar’s usual, the animation in “Coco” is breathtaking. Its vibrant colors pop, especially in the Land of the Dead, a vast world with neon creatures and amusing skeleton people. The scene when Miguel first crosses the marigold bridge into the sprawling Land of the Dead is stunning. The film honors the colorful culture and lore of Mexico, with beautiful ofrendas (shrines to the dead) and alebrijes (fantastical spirit creatures).
“Coco” is Pixar’s first endeavor into the animated musical. But unlike the films of sister studio Walt Disney Animation Studios, “Coco” does not have its own “Let It Go” or “How Far I’ll Go.” The closest it gets is “Remember Me” (Miguel’s favorite song by Ernesto), but it is not quite as catchy as the tunes from “Frozen” or “Moana.” Played multiple times throughout the film and in the credits, “Remember Me” will likely stay in the viewer’s head when exiting the theatre, but it likely will not become the karaoke sensation that the some Disney songs have become.
While solid animated fare, “Coco” doesn’t stack up to Pixar’s best. The film has brilliant animation, some intriguing characters and an emotional ending, but “Coco” is brought down by its breakneck speed and predictable plot. Its title track may be “Remember Me,” but “Coco” shouldn’t be remembered as a Pixar great.