I am one of the few people who has been down on PIXAR films over the past decade. It could be because their first decade was so full of amazing films that their own bar was set impossibly high. Like many other studios, PIXAR also experienced their own “brain drain” as talented artists left the studio for other opportunities, or, unfortunately, passed on. Be that as it may, I felt like I hadn’t seen a truly great film come out of PIXAR animation in around a decade. Until now.
I finally saw Coco recently. I may have resisted seeing it because I was so down on PIXAR. I was also a fan of The Book of Life, which also used the Mexican holiday of The Day of the Dead and the music that surrounds it as a backdrop. Well, now that I’ve seen it, I can honestly say that Coco is the best PIXAR film of the last decade and is one of the top-5 PIXAR films of all time. Click here for a ranking of PIXAR films that I did about a year and a half ago.
So what did Coco have that other recent PIXAR films lacked?
There are a couple of things that have bothered me about PIXAR films since WALL-E came out in 2008. Most of those PIXAR films have either been road movies, or they’ve been half-movies. WALL-E and Up are the best examples of half-movies. Each of those films starts out very strong and very emotional, but then each goes off the rails somewhere in the second act. Other films like Finding Dory, Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur have characters going on physical journeys with separate tests happening at each stop that have little to do with what came before or what’s to come after. That creates an episodic story that lacks a building drama and makes it more difficult to care about the characters. The characters, for their part, have always been the strongest component of PIXAR films. PIXAR’s film makers really know what they’re doing in that capacity, and it’s our caring for the characters that allows for any emotional engagement at all. Unfortunately, without better stories, for me many of the characters never reached their full potential.
Plus, when you take into account that half of the films PIXAR released between 2008 and 20016 were sequels or prequels, and it just felt to me like PIXAR had lost a step off of its game.
I know that I’m in the minority, but those are the reactions that I had to those films.
Coco, on the other hand, was a complete film that lacked the road elements of previous decade’s work. It’s an original film that has a compelling story, engaging characters and a twist that I’m kicking myself over for not seeing it coming. What that means is that the film had an exceptional script that had us totally set up for one thing, but then plausibly paid off something else entirely. That twist, in turn, made the story even more compelling and added layers of depth to the characters that made them.
What all of that did was combine to make a story that was not only compelling and entertaining, but emotionally engaging. I was genuinely touched by the heart in this film. The reason for that is because they created great characters and put them into a story with high stakes and rising tension, and they gave them obstacles that could effectively keep them from getting what they wanted. Those are all of the necessary ingredients to creating a good movie. The PIXAR films of the past decade have generally been missing one or more of those ingredients. Coco had them all.
Another thing that Coco had that hasn’t shown up much in PIXAR films is great songs. Other PIXAR films have had songs in them, but Coco is the first PIXAR film that I can think of that could be considered a musical, with the characters in the film breaking into song. The ever important notion behind a musical is that the songs not just exist for their own sake, but that they help to propel the story. The songs in Coco do that very effectively. In fact, the song Remember Me encapsulates the entire theme of the movie. This is a movie about remembering the past and remembering the importance of those who came before us. The movie tells us that if we forget about them, then we lose a part of ourselves.
Finally, Coco is the most beautiful film that PIXAR has released since Finding Nemo. That film was awash (no pun intended) in saturated colors that helped add energy to the over all film. Coco uses inspiration and influence from Mexican folk art to create a production design that is both whimsical and mysterious. This works to compliment the story, which is also whimsical and mysterious. The color palette that the PIXAR artists used effectively accentuated the moods and the story beats, so it was much more than just pretty to look at. Like all effective production design and art direction, it assisted in the mood and the telling of the story.
Through and through, Coco is a dynamic and fantastic film. It deserves to be recognized along side The Incredibles, Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille as among PIXAR’s best.