Review: Coco VR Brings The Land of the Dead to Life

My love of Pixar's film Coco is deep and profound. Living in New Mexico opened my eyes to Dia de Muertos and helped me cope with the loss of my own loved ones in a new and healthier way. Coco, then, was the love letter to the holiday and culture I only wished I'd written. With the release of Coco on digital earlier this week and Blu-ray/DVD yesterday, I've been thinking about it all over again. So I decided to dive a little deeper into it with the free Coco VR, the first-ever VR experience from Pixar and VR experience developer Magnopus that takes you straight to the Land of the Dead. I've been singing "Part of Your World" since my obsession with Disney's The Little Mermaid when I was 9 years old, but I've never truly been able to be a part of the world of my favorite characters. Virtual reality was more fiction than fact then, so the closest I could get to the world of my favorite Disney characters was, well-- Disney World. As an adult, Pixar's amazing storytelling and art has made me fall in love with animated films all over again. Image courtesy Disney-Pixar Coco is an amazing choice for this sort of experience, as every bit of the film is bursting with color and activity. The Land of the Dead appears as it does in the film, and in VR it is a world almost beyond imagination. Its candy colors and mystical trappings are the perfect enticement to draw people in. In fact, I was so enthusiastic about the source material, and therefore Coco VR, that my primary thought when firing up the Oculus Rift was "I hope they didn't screw this up." I'm happy to report that they didn't screw it up--but Coco VR is by no means perfect. An initial problem with sound had me thinking there'd be nothing to write about at all, but when I got it working, it exceeded my expectations. As soon as I found myself in Miguel's house in front of his family's ofrenda, I knew it'd be as magical as I'd hoped. When a colorful, long-eared cat came to life to guide me as an alebrije , I was giddy.   Image courtesy Disney-Pixar Coco VR, perhaps unsurprisingly given Pixar's history, is as much for kids as adults. In fact, developer Magnopus erases the lines in a truly Pixar fashion. You can choose to play as any one of the lovable members of Miguel's dead family, and as soon as you enter Ceci's costume shop, you'll be able to interact with objects and explore. The primary activity while in the costume shop is to choose your skull-sona and dress them up--and there are plenty of options. Once you're messing around and playing dress-up, it's out to the plaza with you, and on your way to the big show: Coco VR's raison d'etre. The objective itself is forgettable, mostly because on exiting the costume shop, you'll be picking your jaw up off the floor. The main set piece in the Coco VR experience is the plaza, and it's amazing, boasting huge verticals, wide open spaces bursting with color and beautiful music. One of the things that struck me as particularly masterful in Coco VR was the sound experience--everything was so directional that each step you took towards the musicians made you want to get just a little bit closer. I spent a good amount of time just standing among the citizens of the Land of the Dead while taking in the concert on the steps.  A great story deserves a beautiful world, and Coco VR has delivered that and then some. There are various activities scattered throughout the experience, and plenty of things to see. You can do as I did and take in a concert on the plaza steps,  visit the open-air cinema and see a few shorts featuring your favorite Coco characters, and explore the Estudio de Arte--which is an amazing addition to an already great experience. The Estudio de Arte doesn't just feature the beautiful animation and design on the part of Pixar—it also acts as a bit of an art and history lesson for adults and kids, discussing things like the art of Dia de Muertos, themes, different art styles, and the history of the celebration in Mexico. Beautiful drawings and paintings are narrated by the film's characters, and there's always a bit of humor injected, with Easter eggs to find--like the "nude" being painted by her skeletal friend. At the end of your art tour are some amazing 3D models of some of the characters and a face painting activity.  Back outside, you can take selfies (skelfies?) in a little photo booth setup with varying degrees of silly hats, sunglasses and false facial hair, with the ability to save them to your hard drive for later. There's even some set pieces you'll find around that really give you the feel of being there, whether that's the buzzing of the alebrije around my head or something as simple as a  paper airplane I could lazily launch from the bridge. I made my way to the elevator and the streetcar ride, and found myself in awe all over again, as I zoomed past the buildings and waved to the other skeletons in their homes. By the time I got on stage to reach my goal, it felt unnecessary. What I'd wanted was a chance to jump into the world of a story I loved, and I'd felt that immediately.  It's obvious that Magnopus cared for the story and the world Pixar brought to life. There's a high price of admission for VR experiences, and the gaming industry hasn't done a great job of putting worthwhile content out there. I feel like it'll be a while, if ever, until these are the special features that accompany our favorite films. Even Coco VR wasn't perfect, with some of the same problems so common to VR games and experiences these days--problems that exist mostly due to the infancy of the medium and it's sometimes not too user friendly experiences. Navigation within Coco VR was difficult--and as mentioned previously, the audio problem would have meant the game was unplayable if not for a fix I found on Reddit. Even encountering the problems I did though, the time I spent in Coco VR was more than worth dealing with these inconveniences. It's truly something special to be able to interact with a fantastic world in such a real way as an adult, and as a kid it would have blown me away to finally really be part of their world. It turns out a lot of people felt the same way, some even begging to pay for more of the same from Pixar and Magnopus, and I can't blame them. If you'd like to jump inside this world, Coco VR is available as a free experience for both Oculus Rift and Samsung's Gear VR now.
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Marielle Bokor