The better part of the last decade has been rough for Pixar. With the exception of 2015’s Inside Out, the famed studios post Toy Story 3 output has been filled with middling, cash grab sequels and some original work that ranged from average to utterly forgettable. For a studio that made its name on creative, original ideas, it has been quite the fall from grace. While the Mouse has shifted their main focus to franchised sequels, who knew that all it would take for them to regain their creative spark was a simple story about a Mexican boy who travels to the land of the dead?
After his great grandmother was left by a musician and had to raise her daughter alone, she banned music in her family. This became a rule passed down from generation to generation, all the way to Miguel’s parents. So it’s just his luck that he idolizes Ernesto de la Cruz, an extremely popular musician and hometown hero from his great grandmother’s era. After his grandmother (nicknamed Coco) smashes his guitar when she finds out he wants to enter a talent contest, he breaks into Ernesto’s tomb and takes his guitar in order to play anyway. This act causes him to transport into the Land of the Dead and begins our adventure, as he travels this intriguing world looking for a deceased family member, as only their blessing can bring him back to the world of the living.
What really sets Coco apart from the last two original Pixar stories, and most recent animated films in general, is the fully realized, fantastic world that it inhabits. Brave? Pretty generic European fantasy setting. The Good Dinosaur? If you can actually remember anything about the film I’ll buy you lunch. But the setting of Coco grabs you from the get-go, from the authentic looking small town in which Miguel and his family live, to the wonderous world of the dead in which we spend the bulk of our time. Everything in it is meticulously crafted-from its ghettos to its great structures and town squares-it all serves a purpose in creating a fully realized, and pardon the pun, living world. Much like the earlier Pixar works Monsters Inc. and A Bugs Life, Coco’s Land of the Dead is a world that you truly captures your imagination.
However, a beautifully realized world is nothing without a good story and some heart to go along with it. Coco delivers on both. While the plot twists can be seen coming from a mile away, it doesn’t matter as Coco knows just the right heart strings to tug at. This is what elevates the film into the upper echelon of the Pixar catalogue, not only are the setting and basic idea extraordinary, but it also packs an emotional punch not seen in most “children’s” fare. It may not be up there with Toy Story 3, we haven’t been on enough of a journey with these characters to reach that level of waterworks, but pack along a few tissues just in case.
Coco isn’t just the best animated film I’ve seen this year, it’s probably the best I’ve seen in the last few. While it may be steeped in Mexican mythos, its heart lies in a story about family, and that’s something everyone can relate to. Let’s hope this is the start of Pixar’s return to greatness instead of just a happy accident before the mediocre sequel machine starts up again.