Coco and the non-essential villain

Coco and the non-essential villain

Yes, Coco is a good movie. It’s fun, it takes on a unique culture and history with reverence, seeking to entertain and inform and succeeding on both counts. You walk away with a better idea (if you didn’t know already) of why the Day of the Dead is such an important holiday. It’s a movie about a young boy who discovers his family is much more than he thinks it is. It’s a story about those same family members realizing that, perhaps, their own grudges aren’t worth keeping.

Coco also keeps up taut tension without ever having a single, primary villain until the very end (and even then, this isn’t a villain that’ll have you quaking in fear). In fact, for most of the movie, there’s not a whole lot of risk involved to the boy, Miguel, himself. Yet, despite the lack of a hard antagonist, Coco doesn’t let you get bored. Coco succeeds despite its missing antagonist for a couple of main reasons, both of which are worth looking at incorporating into my (or your) own works:

  1. Plenty of shifting, minor threats – rather than one big enemy, Coco presents a number of smaller dangers throughout the movie. None of these have the deadly possibilities of most antagonists, but any and all, if successful, would cause significant setbacks to our hero. And because Coco never lingers on any of these too long, mostly because Miguel has overcome the threat in some fashion, we never have the chance to get bored by the lack of doom. Coco keeps up the tension through a shuffling cup game – never quite letting us know where the next conflict will come from, which keeps us from caring about a core villain.
  2. A vibrant world we want to explore – Miguel takes the viewers on an exploration through the world of the dead, and it’s a fascinating, colorful place to visit. The wide shots, teases and tastes of how this magical place works are simply too much fun – there’s no time to worry about where the danger’s coming from because we’re too busy taking it all in. This, I think, plays better in film than in the written word, where pages and pages of description, no matter how wonderful, can leave readers falling asleep or thumbing ahead to the next gunfight.
  3. Compelling B Characters  – Coco has a brilliant cast of side characters. Miguel’s family, who make up the stars of Coco, along with Miguel himself, all have personality. They have goals, problems, and arcs. They aren’t talking exposition dumps, or one-note caricatures (for the most part), and they expand to fill the space a villain would otherwise occupy. By the time the actual evildoer is revealed, I almost didn’t care. I wanted more time with the goofy collection of characters we’d already met.
  4. A central mystery that isn’t tied to a villain – Coco‘s core plot revolves around a mystery, and while the resolution of that mystery eventually brings Miguel to encounter the villain, his journey to answer the question serves in place of a direct counter. I’d put this down as essential whether or not you have a hard, active villain, and while Coco‘s mystery isn’t exactly original, it’s compelling enough to keep the story moving forward.

The point of all this, of course, is that it’s entirely possible to craft a compelling narrative without a strong villain, especially if you have a protagonist or setting that doesn’t encourage an active antagonist. Coco could have made itself into a frenetic action movie, with plenty of cartoon violence and chase sequences throughout the land of the dead. Instead, through Miguel, we experience the setting slowly, let its wonder seep into us, and when the plot eventually catches up, it’s almost disappointing. Would that more movies did as much with their worlds as Coco does.


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