Pixar has put out another film, and it is very good.
Is anyone surprised at this point? Over the past 22 years, there is not another studio that has a more proven track record to putting out films that are hits both critically and commercially. Even their films which seem the most commercially driven earn a firm, “it was ok,” at their worst.
But when the studio has a fresh idea that it follows through on, it results with some of the greatest animated films of all time, and some of the best films of this century. It is the latter category where Coco fits as one of the finest films of the year.
In two decades, Pixar has taken us to an incredibly diverse list of locations and worlds in their films. From the small worlds of toys and ants, to worlds inhabited by monsters, superheroes and robots. With Coco, Pixar takes us to the most exotic world yet: Mexico! Alright, so perhaps Mexico itself is not that exotic, but the other major world within this film is.
Early on the film, we are introduced to the Land of the Dead, and with it, yet another example of why Pixar is the best in the business. The city located within the Land of the Dead is one of the most visually stunning landscapes ever placed within an animated film. The image below does not do the design justice, as watching it in motion in a darkened theater on a massive screen is an experience that will be difficult to match for any animated film that follows.
Even over the next few years, it will be difficult for any studio – even Pixar – to be able to deliver a visual spectacle that can surpass those within Coco. The vivid lighting and colors paired with the simultaneously intricate and scattered design give off the impression of a coral reef inhabited not by friendly fish looking for their sons, but by the spirits of our ancestors whose sole desire is simply to not be forgotten.
Only Pixar can breath so much life into a city populated by the dead.
Which brings us to the one issue of Coco. Well, it is less of an issue, as it is a shortcoming when compared to other Pixar films. Coco checks all the boxes, in a good way this time, that a quality film must check; it has great and distinct characters, it has a compelling narrative, and a level of heart that makes its messages come across as one that is truly genuine and not a shoehorned in piece of sentimentality.
The message itself is a good one as well. It is one of the value of family- direct, distant and ancestral, yet it also manages to balance that message with one that is paradoxically about one of following your dreams and to not let familial pressure to get you down. Despite those messages seemingly contradicting each other, they are effectively conveyed and managed to support each other.
However, this message along with the general structure of the film both feel fairly safe. While it might seem ridiculous for a film that takes place in the Land of the Dead and that features the protagonist searching for one of this ancestor’s blessings so the he can pursue his dreams to be safe, Coco comes across as such when compared to other Pixar greats. The big risk to the protagonist is that if our protagonist does not get out of the Land of the Dead in time, then he will be stuck there forever, yet the risk of being stuck there forever never quite places a sense of urgency on the film that it should. The same could be accomplished if he were simply stuck there until next year.
When compared to some of the other heights that Pixar has reached, Coco feels slightly less ambitious in terms of its levels of complexity and abstractness. This is the same studio who told a better story in fewer than five minutes than most can do in two hours (see below); that had a protagonist for one of its films only able to speak its own name and where there was little to no dialogue for the first half our; and that had another film take place almost entirely inside the head of the protagonist in order to explore the complex relationship between the various emotions and their necessity.
Compared to those, the message of family can feel a little quaint or subdued. This is the only aspect keeping Coco back from begin in true contention for the top film Pixar has made. There is no doubt that this is one of the five best films that the studio has made, and is the best one to be released since Inside Out. However, to stand among the best of Pixar is to stand among giants, and Coco comes up just the slightest bit short to be called the best that Pixar has released. Regardless, Coco will set the standard for which all family and animated films are to be measured over the next few years, and even Pixar will have a hard time topping itself until it can come up with the next original idea to astound us with.