It's Time for Pixar to Make a Musical

Coco and Beauty and the Beast Still - Split - Photofest - H 2017
Left, courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, right, Photofest
With 'Coco,' the studio is as close as it has ever been.

For a long time, Pixar Animation Studios wanted to avoid making anything even resembling a musical. Though the studio’s films often feature at least one or two songs, sometimes even including characters onscreen singing, Pixar movies could rarely be confused with Disney musicals like Beauty and the Beast or Moana. Its latest film, Coco, doesn’t quite qualify as a musical either, but unlike Pixar’s previous films, this movie is squarely about music.

From the beginning, Pixar has tried to eschew the perceived specter of music in its stories.

The tradition goes all the way back to Toy Story director John Lasseter, who has taken a leave of absence from Pixar amid claims of misconduct. When making 1995's Toy Story, Lasseter frequently pushed back against Disney executives, who wanted characters like Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear to break into song, even as Lasseter and co-writer Joss Whedon argued against using diegetic songs in a buddy comedy about toys. The eventual compromise for that feature — Toy Story does feature a few songs, written by Randy Newman, which play over the action of a given scene to amplify the story’s themes and emotions — is represented in a lot of Pixar’s films. Since 1995, Pixar characters have sung onscreen (Sheriff Woody briefly sings “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” in Toy Story 2), but not in the same manner as characters like Belle, Queen Elsa, Aladdin and more. Pixar characters express their emotions, but through dialogue and action, instead of through song.

Coco doesn’t exactly break out of Pixar’s pre-set mold either. Protagonist Miguel (enthusiastically voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) adores music, even though (or perhaps because) the rest of his family despises music due to one of their ancestors prioritizing music over family. He’s got a fair bit of talent on the guitar as well, idolizing the long-dead singer Ernesto De La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who he also believes may be his great-great-grandfather. Eventually, Miguel finds himself in the Land of the Dead, hoping to meet Ernesto and get his blessing to follow the elder man’s musical example. Throughout Coco, Miguel’s struggle with his family, as genuine and sincere as they may be, mirrors that of Pixar and Disney (or at least Pixar as a major unit and some of its employees). Miguel’s grandmother goes as far as breaking his guitar to stop his musical desires, as if to pursue music would go against the family’s entire existence, mirroring Pixar’s near-allergy to using songs in its films for story-based purposes.

Coco largely does incorporate music in ways that will be familiar to many Pixar fans. The first time that Miguel hears the frequently repeated ballad “Remember Me” in the film, he’s watching an old video of Ernesto De La Cruz, almost akin to WALL-E hearing music from Hello, Dolly! in the 2008 film bearing his name. The same song shows up in a key emotional moment later on, similar to how “When She Loved Me” was employed for maximal tear-jerking effect in Toy Story 2. While characters like Miguel and his con-artist partner in the Land of the Dead, Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), perform onscreen, there’s always the context of why they are performing. Characters here do not burst into song to express their feelings, a la Frozen or countless other Disney films. Even when utilizing music, Pixar plays as fair as possible to its past in Coco.

The songs themselves in the film — there are five original numbers, including the Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez-written “Remember Me” — are quite good, running the spectrum of emotions. Considering that it’s played often and within different contexts, “Remember Me” itself is able to feel uplifting or heartbreaking, depending on what the film needs. The brief but enjoyable “Un Poco Loco” and “Everyone Knows Juanita” are each very funny and loose. So, although Pixar has chosen to avoid making a straightforward musical, Coco suggests that the studio’s filmmakers would be quite adept at diving into the genre fully.

Coco is also one of Pixar’s most visually striking films to date, each frame offering a new, sumptuously colorful image to take in. But it relies heavily on music, something that’s so unfamiliar and infrequently used within the studio’s past films. Pixar has constantly broken new technological ground in the last two decades, and the characters and worlds its storytellers have concocted often feel singular and unique. Coco utilizes a recognizable cultural tradition as the basis of its story, and adds in the necessity of how music can bring people together. While the pic does traffic in familiar elements, it suggests that Pixar as a studio is now ready to move even further into the world of music with a future film. They may not have wanted to make a musical before, but Coco makes it clear: Pixar’s ready.