Oscars: Pixar’s ‘Coco’ Arrives as the Animated Feature to Beat

By now Pixar pretty much has it down to a science, both on the screen and on the circuit. With an all-hands method of cracking story, the Emeryville, Calif.-based studio thrives in the marketplace (racking up more than $11 billion in worldwide box office receipts) and consistently dominates the 17-year-old animated feature category at the Academy Awards (claiming eight wins and 10 nominations so far).

The Disney subsidiary’s latest, “Coco,” fits in snuggly with a canon of moving and emotionally resonant storytelling. It also enters a lively animated Oscar race as the one to beat … naturally.

Other top contending films include independent handmade gems like Gkids’ “The Breadwinner” and Good Deed’s “Loving Vincent,” as well as critically approved big-studio efforts like Warner Animation Group’s “The Lego Batman Movie” and DreamWorks’ “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.” But few are likely to strike the same balance as “Coco,” a movie that, like so many previous Pixar efforts, makes a strong case for recognition outside just the animated feature frame.

The original screenplay by Matthew Aldrich, Jason Katz, Adrian Molina, and director Lee Unkrich, effortlessly building on theme and character from beginning to end, ticks with a sort of clockwork precision. Its pitch might even be too perfect; Variety critic Peter Debruge wondered aloud whether the filmmakers really believe in the film’s tidy messaging or are simply “spouting the platitudes that audiences want to hear.” Whatever the case, it’s a script built to succeed.

In the briefest description, the film tells the story of a young Mexican boy’s undying (and forbidden) passion for music, and the Inferno-like journey he takes through the Land of the Dead on the annual Mexican holiday of Dia de Muertos. Built into the narrative are ideas of legacy and family that give it the kind of dimension that tends to elevate Pixar from the fray.

It’s fair to pine for something more electrifying or unexpected, but in the simplest terms, this is the kind of disciplined craft writers respect and aspire to. That said, the original screenplay category is murder this year, overflowing with legitimate contenders. It could be a tough field to crack.

The music branch may have a field day, however. One of the film’s original songs — “Remember Me,” penned by Oscar-winning “Frozen” songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez — is sure to be a strong candidate, particularly given how expertly utilized it is within the narrative. Meanwhile, Michael Giacchino’s rich compositions, drawn from traditional marimba, mariachi, and cumbia music, could go far with a group that has awarded world music scores like “Life of Pi,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Babel,” and “Frida” in recent years. (Giacchino’s soaring work on Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes” is also in contention this year. He previously won for Pixar’s “Up.”)

Best picture, however, seems out of reach for any animated film lately. Pixar landed “Up” and “Toy Story 3” in the top field, but ever since a procedural switch that has voters ranking five films for best picture instead of 10, no toon has cracked it. If “Inside Out” couldn’t manage it, it really seems like nothing can.

Other animated features in play this year include Blue Sky’s “Ferdinand,” Illumination’s “Despicable Me 3,” DreamWorks’ “The Boss Baby,” Sony Animation’s “The Star,” and Pixar’s own “Cars 3.” Gkids, meanwhile, has six qualifying titles in addition to “The Breadwinner,” including “Birdboy: The Forgotten Children,” “The Girl Without Hands,” and “Marry and the Witch’s Flower.” The New York-based indie distributor’s offerings often appeal to traditionalists in the animation branch, quietly accounting for a whopping nine nominations over the last eight years. But with the Academy recently opening up the nominations process to anyone in or outside the branch interested in joining the committee, it’s unclear how much of a foothold smaller films will maintain.

The Academy will announce this year’s list of animated feature film submissions later this week. There are expected to be at least 16 eligible contenders, the minimum required for a full slate of five nominations.