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COCO (2017) review

November 21, 2017

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written by: Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina (story/screenplay) & Jason Katz and Matthew Aldrich (story)
produced by: Darla Kay Anderson
directed by: Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
rated: PG (for thematic elements)
runtime: 109 min.
U.S. release date: November 22, 2107

 

Walt Disney Pictures seems to have established a yearly recipe for moviegoers to consume. Within the last couple of years their recipe has called for one Star Wars movie, three Marvel movies and two Pixar features (one a sequel and one an original feature). Considering what they have to offer and the fan base that will clamor to the release of any of those, who’s to blame them? Certainly not me, since I’ve been enjoyed most of their work – especially the confident and creative animation features from Pixar, even this past summer’s “Cars 3” was a delightful return to form. But, if I’m honest, it’s the studio’s original works that I’m most interested in and their latest, “Coco” has captured my imagination and my heart. It’s a strikingly beautiful movie, both for its visuals and its emotional story, celebrating memories, dreams and family.

Young Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) lives in the small Mexican village of Santa Cecilia with his parents, sister and proud extended family of cobblers, all of whom have renounced music for generations. This all started when Miguel’s great-great grandmother, Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach), was abandoned by her guitar-strumming husband, leaving her to raise their daughter, Coco, all on her own. Miguel has to keep his love of music and desire to play guitar and sing a secret from his family, especially grandmother, Abuelita (Renée Victor), who vehemently opposes any music and is preoccupied with caring for his great-grandmother, Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), the family matriarch who’s losing her memory. With the annual Dia de los Meurtos festival approaching, Miguel longs to perform at the plaza, the way his hero, the late Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who was the most famous musician in all of Mexico started out.

 

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After borrowing a guitar from Ernesto’s mausoleum on the night of the festival, Miguel is magically sent to the Land of the Dead, where he finds himself in a colorful world inhabited by thousands of skeletal ancestors from the village, some of which are Miguel’s relatives. Stuck between both worlds, the confused and overwhelmed Miguel must seek out a blessing from Ernesto, in order to return to the land of the living. However, getting to Ernesto will prove to be quite the challenge, considering he is more popular in death than he ever was when he was alive. Miguel bumps into the accident prone, Hector (Gael García Bernal), who promises to help the boy find Ernesto on the condition that Miguel will prop a photograph of him once he’s back among the living, so he won’t be forgotten and disappear forever. Miguel will have to stay focused throughout his unexpected adventure and get his blessing fulfilled or else he’ll wind up residing with the dead forever.

That may seem rather dark, right? Land of the Dead sounds more like a cult zombie flick (hmmm…), rather than a PG-rated animated feature. Rest assured, the filmmakers know what they’re doing. Besides, we live in a world where “Stranger Things” is being devoured by 5th graders. If they deal with The Upside Down, they can handle a comical after life. Disney and Pixar have never pulled any emotional punches – from Bambi’s mom to Bing Bong – typically including heartbreaking fatalities and trauma, while incorporating some kind of coming-of-age challenge or revelation for their main character to experience. There are always inevitable truths and lessons learned, but each time the fun and joy is in how they incorporate all of that into the overall story and that’s something that definitely holds true for “Coco”.

 

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I’ll admit that when I first saw the stills and trailers for “Coco”, I thought we’d already had such a story back in 2014 with “The Book of Life” from 20th Century Fox, but the similarities between the two features end with the inclusion of the Day of the Dead. Screenwriters Adrian Molina (a veteran Pixar storyteller who also co-directs) and Matthew Aldrich have created a much more personal tale (from a story they wrote with director Lee Unkrich and Jason Katz), one that is irresistibly charming and effortlessly endearing. It’s also funny without being overbearing with forced laughs or sarcastic humor. The result is an exquisitely-rendered animated feature that easily immerses its audience into an attractive world with indelibly rich characters. It’s really something that despite hitting some familiar beats and predictable notes, how the directors manage to incorporate them into the story, not to mention that the earnest tone they employ holds up throughout.

It’s a rare feat in any movie when inevitable exposition fails to induce an eye-rolling reaction from a viewer who can easily detect such tropes. Sure, there are story elements that will be familiar and predictable…for some. But, I’ve come to realize and accept that if I can recognize certain conventions in a family film that’s aimed at all-ages and the tone of the feature has its heart in the right place, then I can accept what I see and remind myself that this is likely to be somebody’s first experience taking in story elements or characterizations that I’ve seen before. When I inject that mindset into my viewing experience, I can let go and enjoy what is unfolding on the big-screen in front of me.

Like many of the best Pixar films, it’s the characters that we gravitate to in “Coco” that make the viewing experience so enjoyable. Miguel is passionate and exuberant, pure-hearted kid who just wants to be true to himself. Seeing a twelve year-old written in such a manner, makes me grateful that we’re not subjected to yet another spoiled or snarky tween. It’s not unusual to have the protagonist be accompanied by an animal sidekick and here Miguel is shadowed by a hapless stray dog he names Dante (a fitting name considering where the two wind up – the dog winds up in a short released on line directed by Unkrich, you can check it out here), a hairless xolo breed with a bent tail, torn ear and wildly elastic tongue. They make  a great pair and get into some hilarious afterlife situations.

 

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With the large amount of characters that populate “Coco”, it’s refreshing to see a good balance of strong and pertinent male and female characters. The women prominently featured in Miguel’s family are the three generations of grandmothers (one of them he meets in the afterlife) and all of them have their own distinctive purpose and personality. In fact, I found myself quite whelmed with the fact that the movie is named after one of them, considering there’s an emotionally resonant reason. The two main male characters, wonderfully voiced by Bernal and Bratt, are distinctive from each other, yet the connection between the two that is eventually revealed caught me by surprise. To prepare for the role of superstar Ernesto de la Cruz, Bratt viewed old clips of famous Mexican cinema stars, such as Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante (both of whom make an appearance in the movies as skeletons), in order to get the right attitude for Ernesto and it works since the character definitely feels like old throwback to serial musicals.

Pay close attention and you’ll also catch Cheech Marin and Edward James Olmos in key supporting roles in the Land of the Dead – and yes, there’s even a line for Pixar staple, John Ratzenberger.

I’d be remiss not to mention the jubilant music of “Coco”. The lovely score is provided by Pixar maestro Michael Giacchino (“The Incredibles” and “Inside Out“), but what you’ll truly remember are the infectious songs, some of which were written by co-director/writer Adrian Molina, while others were written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband Robert Lopez (both of whom worked on the great songs from the 2011 feature, “Winnie the Pooh”). I can easily see a couple of the songs here, “Remember Me” (with vocals by Bratt) and “Un Poco Loco” (performed by Bernal and Gonzalez), earning some Oscar nominations next year. The best thing about these songs is that when they’re played they don’t feel like a “song break”, since music is such a huge part of the movie.

Last year at this time, Disney offered up “Moana” which showcased the Polynesian culture and here we have Pixar presenting us with a serenade to Mexican folklore. Both films include multiple generations, providing a chance for certain viewers to be able to see themselves on the screen. That right there is cause enough to celebrate, but it helps that Unkrich and Molina have made a clever and heartfelt serenade to a rich and vibrant culture as well. The production and design details in “Coco” are intoxicating. From the ofrenda on display in the Rivera home (a traditional ritual altar where photos of loved ones are on display during Dia de los Meurtos, so the deceased can visit with the living), to the elaborate design of the Land of the Dead, the environments the characters inhabit are simply mesmerizing. One specific scene that captivated me took place in a cenote (an underground cave with a pool of natural water) in the Land of the Dead where Miguel and Hector form an unexpected bond, where we see light reflecting off the water, spotlighting a pivotal moment for the two characters. It’s an artistic wonder to behold.

I smiled pretty much the entire length of “Coco” and at times I felt my throat get tied up in a knot, especially when it all comes to an emotional head at the end. That’s because the story earned it. It’s not hard to get on board with Miguel’s story and his desire to play his music freely and feel the support of his family. Ultimately, what “Coco” provides us with is a reminder that even painful memories shouldn’t be forgotten, making this feature quite a relatable tale for any age.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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