Original movies. Once upon a time, we could rely on Pixar Animation Studios to deliver a movie that was not only original, but very good practically every year. Those days are gone. Now, like every other heavy-hitter in Hollywood, Pixar is most interested in making sequels to its older hits. Coco is the last original Pixar production we will see until, at least, the year 2020. On paper, Coco is an oasis, by far the most exciting project on Pixar’s list. A lot of time and research went into crafting this story about the Mexican tradition of Día de los muertos, and a lot of excitement built around the idea of Pixar depicting Mexican culture on a big canvas (and in a respectful way, for a change). Having finally seen Coco, I must say the results are mixed. The depiction of Mexican culture is detailed, but leaves some questionable gaps. The movie’s biggest weakness, however, is an overwhelming reliance on plot, a flaw that seems endemic to the way the Pixar team approaches filmmaking.
While watching Coco, the focus of anyone who, like me, was born and raised in Latin America is going to be in Pixar’s depiction of Mexico. On the one hand it’s a bit frustrating that the only Latin American (or Mexican) tradition Hollywood seems interested in is Day of the Dead. On the other, it’s easy to recognize that the iconography that comes with the Day of the Dead -colorful skeletons, orange flowers everywhere- is incredibly striking. One can only imagine all the things Pixar’s computer geniuses could do with the traditional visuals. A psychedelic extravaganza, perhaps? A beautiful rendering, at least.
Well, there are two sides to this story. After a beautiful papery introduction, Coco introduces us to a fairly realistic (if idillic) portrait of contemporary Mexico. Miguel is a young boy who lives in the fictitious village of Santa Cecilia. He dreams of being a musician in the image of his idol Ernesto de la Cruz. There’s only one problem: his family hates music. Turns out his great-great-grandmother’s husband was a musician who ran away and left her and her young daughter to fend for themselves. After swearing off music, the woman managed to make a living as a cobbler. Years later, the whole family works in the shoe business, and music was never heard in the family again.
Until Miguel comes around, of course. He wants to show his family wrong by performing at a talent show that takes place on día de los muertos, but through a series of complications, Miguel ends up stranded in the Land of the Dead. This is the truly fantastic and colorful part. Or so it seems. First, we meet Miguel’s ancestors, who are all talking skeletons. Then, we travel through a long and beautiful bridge made of floating flower petals. Finally, we arrive in the Land of the Dead and our first glimpse of this wonderful world is… immigration?
Yup, there is immigration protocol in the Land of the Dead. In order to move from one plane to the other, you must go through customs and see if your face pops up in a little screen. You know, just like you do when you cross the border into a different country. This is the first big eyebrow-raising moment in the movie. The Land of the Dead sequences are the moments in which the movie can be as creative as it wants, isn’t this place supposed to represent the essence of Mexican identity and traditions? Is the movie suggesting that this is the essence of being Mexican? Crossing the border, being an immigrant?
The whole depiction of the Land of the Dead is a huge wasted opportunity. It is presented as essentially a prettier version of the “real” Mexico we have seen in the first part of the movie. The buildings, the ways to get around, the class structure, they’re all basically the same. There are concerts, and elevators, and pools, and fire escapes, and of course, immigration agents and customs. Except for a few details, it’s all practically the same, just with a bunch of skeletons. Where is the magic? Where is the creativity? This is what, I think, has become the problem with Pixar. They are too focused on having the plot make sense, at the expense of everything else around it.
Pixar’s motto has always been that the “story comes first.” You can find countless interviews, videos, TEDtalks in which a Pixar creative talks about the way in which they craft stories. At the time when Pixar first burst into the scene, their extremely logical way of looking at every angle of a story and crafting it to its full potential was practically unique in American animation. Years later, they are the most powerful animation house in the country. Not only have there been countless imitators of their style, but Pixar itself has bought into its own legend, following its protocol without questioning it.
Coco is all plot. In a way, it is an extremely tight story. There is not a wasted moment, every scene not only leads perfectly into the next scene, but sets up a bit of information that will be paid off in a later scene. In theory, this is how you want to craft a story. You want to make it as much of a perfect puzzle as you can. But are there other things you’re missing by doing this? What is being lost? The big irony of this approach is that by focusing so tightly on plot, the guys of Pixar have crafted a story so perfect that it’s all but guaranteed you’ll predict every beat. Fifteen minutes into the movie, I could have told you exactly how everything is going to play out.
A predictable plot is not always a death sentence (pardon the pun). Many movies work around lame plots by focusing on character, visuals, or set pieces. The best musicals of classic Hollywood actually thrive on generic plotting. But what can you turn to when plot is your biggest obsession? There are some nice songs in Coco, and some pretty visuals. But the plot doesn’t allow for the design to truly take flight. The character animation is boringly realistic, and the comedy repetitive. You won’t believe how many times a skeleton loses its head as the punchline to a joke.
It’s a shame Coco feels so much like a wasted opportunity. Hopefully the strength of the Disney-Pixar machine paired with the Thanksgiving weekend will make it into a big hit. Because, if nothing else, Coco being a success would guarantee future Hollywood productions dealing with Latino characters and subjects. This might not be the masterpiece we wanted it to be, but the only way to make one is to keep trying.