Thursday, March 01, 2018

"Coco": review

[NB: SAFE! No real spoilers.]

When Disney took Pixar under its wing, it was inevitable that singing—a Disney animated movie's trademark—would eventually end up creeping into a Pixar movie. Luckily for the 2017 movie "Coco," this didn't turn out quite as bad as it could have, and this is mainly thanks to the screenwriting. In Disney movies, the singing often gets brutally shoehorned in: characters suddenly break into song for no discernible reason. In "Coco," the story of Miguel Rivera, a tween boy who wants to become a musician, the singing actually makes sense when it happens because the songs are an integral part of the story unfolding before us.

A bit like "A Christmas Carol," the adventure that Miguel experiences takes place—except for the coda—over the course of one night and one morning. Born to a family of shoemakers who have rejected all music because of an ancestor who abandoned the family generations ago, Miguel knows deep in his soul that he was meant to be a musician. His hero, Ernesto de la Cruz—musician, actor, and all-around Don Juan from a bygone era—had a motto: "Seize Your Moment." Miguel's family is in the midst of hectic preparations for El Día de (los) Muertos—the Day of the Dead (for us Yanks, and in a totally different cosmology, this would very roughly correspond to Halloween*), but Miguel wants to participate in a music contest happening that night. Breaking into the mausoleum of his idol de la Cruz, Miguel attempts to steal the star's famous guitar and finds himself, along with his faithful dog Dante, plunged into what I can only describe as the world of the dead. Adventures ensue, lessons are learned, great mysteries are solved, and a couple major plot twists ambush us.

Pixar has done it again in producing a movie whose color palate is incredibly rich and variegated. This is a far more imaginative and scenic adventure than what we saw in "What Dreams May Come." Symbol-hunters and other culture geeks will have a field day trying to take in all the Mexican culture that is presented to us. And speaking of beautiful visuals: we see several bridges connecting the lands of the living and the dead that are gorgeously rendered as solid-but-not-solid, each bridge a mass of Aztec-marigold leaves describing a bridge's surface and support columns... but with the columns disappearing into nothingness, like virga. Looming above those bridges is the necropolis—the great, vibrant city of the dead, where the deceased carry on much as they did in life, but only for as long as they are remembered by mortals in the realm of the living. The necropolis holds other splendors as well: the alebrije, fantastical creatures of legend that come in many forms, serving as guardians and psychopomps—and playing important roles in this movie's plot.

"Coco" (the name of Miguel's 99-year-old great-grandmother) is directed by Lee Unkrich (who directed "Toy Story 3"). It stars Anthony Gonzalez as the intrepid Miguel, Gael García Bernal as Hector, Benjamin Bratt as Ernesto de la Cruz, and too many other stars to name (I'll mention a poignant cameo by Edward James Olmos). All the voice actors hit their marks beautifully; it's easy to tell that they all had fun making this movie. Along with the fine acting and the amazing visuals, the music—both the orchestral soundtrack and the songs—was phenomenal. I was surprised to see, in the credits, that the orchestral score was by none other than Michael Giacchino, whom I've chided multiple times for being enslaved to uncreative studio idiots who won't let him exercise his particular brand of mad genius. In this movie, Giacchino finds his soul, and while his score isn't quite up to the creative par he set in "The Incredibles," it's a damn sight better than the work he's done in his last several movies.

This is a story that puts both family and culture front and center. The culture is there for the viewer to see, but the movie isn't preachy about it. We the viewers enter into a kind of osmotic relationship with the culture on display before us: we absorb its tendrils, and these strands are subtly interwoven with the theme of family so that, in the end, everything makes organic sense. The movie also provides a vision of the afterlife that many, even if they're not Mexican, probably wouldn't mind entering into. This is significant, given that "Coco" is a children's movie as much as it's a movie for grownups.

As magnificent as "Coco" is (and yes, I shed a tear at the point where everyone said I'd be shedding a tear), it doesn't top my personal rankings for Pixar films. At this point, I seriously doubt that anything could ever dethrone "The Incredibles" for me: I'm too emotionally committed to that film. But while "Coco" might not be Pixar's acme, it's still a very impressive achievement and, I think, well worth your time to see at least once.

*Christ, I can imagine a whole battalion of anthro, soc, folklore, and rel-studies academics rugby-piling onto me for being so cavalier as to establish a facile equivalence between two very distinct traditions. Fine, fine, fine—to be clear, Halloween and the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations have radically different historical and cultural roots, proceed in radically different manners, and most importantly, SIGNIFY radically different things for their respective celebrants. The events share almost nothing in common except a yen for skeletal imagery, a kind-of relationship with the Catholic liturgical calendar, and the same date: October 31. There—better? I'd feel guilty as hell if people came away from this review going, "So the Day of the Dead is basically Mexican Halloween!" More info here.


Charles said...

I can't believe you would so cavalierly equate the Day of the Dead with Halloween! Shame on you, sir! Shame on you!

Sorry. It's basically a Pavlovian response for me at this point. Also, I've wanted to see this for a while now--ever since I first saw the trailers, actually. Must get to it.

Kevin Kim said...

I've heard many comments comparing this to the animated feature "The Book of Life," which also involves an otherworldly adventure during the Day of the Dead. Perhaps I'll watch "The Book of Life" and draw a facile equivalence between it and "Coco." Heh.