Pixar is now well into its second generation of directors, and a few patterns have emerged. Even before news was reported about the reasons behind Rashida Jones and her writing partner leaving the production of the upcoming Toy Story 4, anyone could count: 19 feature films, 33 shorts, and one woman credited as a co-director (she left the production partway over that old byword: creative differences). Why bring this up in the context of Coco, a perfectly fine, lovable, crowd-pleasing family film? Because even if the studio’s formula is by now so refined it can be, like Disney’s before it, applied to any childhood narrative-of-becoming, any cultural myth, any national backdrop, there’s something lost by taking this pathway of least resistance. That is, as Pixar has relaxed from its role of breakthrough artistic force to a kind of cinéma de silicon valley papa, something has been lost: instead of expanding outward, the company is now about maintenance (which explains the sequels, the lack of risks, the way the directing mantle has been handed down from one male animator to another, apprentice-style).
But back to the formula, which is on full, brilliant display here. Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is less interested in his family’s story (which he knows) than his own (which is hidden): he wants to be a musician, a sore spot for the Rivera family dating back to when a musician father (Miguel’s great-grandfather) left home never to return. The cartoonish kneejerk reaction is this: no music, in any form, in the house. So Miguel has carved out a shrine in the attic to his dream — like Wall•E, he learns from a screen, re-watching clips from old Ernesto de la Cruz movies, who was not only an actor-singer-guitarist-star like Miguel wants to be, but, the boy’s imagination begins to hope for, possibly that missing relative. The story seems specific, it has a certain tug, it contains mysteries and sets up a quest for knowledge and emotional fulfillment.
And yet there is something closed-in about Pixar’s worldview: like in Disney’s, conflict and desire are symbolic, not psychological. Everything is bound up in guitars, idols, and contest verdicts, though there are nods to how children become collateral in old generational conflicts, and what it means to have one’s dream go unlistened to — this is, after all, the studio with a wildly successful movie that opens its quest with a son telling his father, “I hate you” before being separated. But it seems noteworthy: as in Inside Out, Pixar’s previous original hit, we have an absent father figure. A half-truth in that film crumbles the purity of the young girl protagonist’s “Honesty Island,” here the way Miguel hides himself from his family and the world until his guitar skills are ready is proof of his resourcefulness; all of Inside Out revolves around an exposition-heavy explanation of the girl’s emotions and how they factor in all she does; here Miguel gets to have dreams, consider himself an equal with a national artistic hero, witness death in its many forms and never flinch. These different tones and narrative approaches will seem benign to most audiences, who will likely laugh, cry, and walk away with warm family-bonded feelings, but you might call the previous work a film about a father trying to understand a daughter, and Coco a film about truly seeing and identifying with a son.
There’s no question that Pixar’s films still aspire to something more than most American animation: each symbol seems carefully thought through, the storyline and jokes are relentlessly efficient, the protagonists — who, the animators know, will be seen by millions of children — endure hardship, enter pensive quietude, show joy in ways people like the director, Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) surely hope reflect each child’s best self. Compared to recent Pixar films, Coco is carried even more by its ideas, dodging the distractions of irony, spectacular violence, and flashing colourful celebrity attraction — or revealing their hollow cheapness. Everything that a parent watching the film could want to have happen happens: reunions, comeuppances, unmaskings, lessons. The film is about appreciating what you have, and about families, in turn, appreciating the unexpected gifts of their youngest members. It is touching, in its respect for vulnerable elders, and its consideration of legacies and one’s ultimate impact in life. But as Miguel, the crowd-pleasing kid, fades into Miguel, the pop-star singing over the credits, one has to notice: what began as a question about the responsibility of a man to his family became, through coincidence-heavy circumstance, a quickly-resolved petty argument. How beautiful it would be, the film wistfully suggests, if all families could be summed up so neatly, where fathers sing to their daughters, and pass on their gifts to their grandsons.