Coco (2017)


Life’s a long song.

(2017) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Adrian Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Jaime Camil, Alfonso Arau, Herbert Siguenza, Gabriel Iglesias, Lombardo Boyar, Ana Ofelia Murgula, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Selene Luna, Edward James Olmos, Cheech Marin, John Ratzenberger, Luis Valdez, Carla Medina. Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

 

There was a point in time when I could confidently state that each and every movie that Pixar put out was of the highest quality and were all amazing in their own right. That is no longer possible; there have been some less-than-stellar sequels and even a few new movies that haven’t exactly been critical successes. The latest Pixar effort could consider the cold streak – or it could be a return to the legacy that they’ve been building.

Manuel (Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old boy who wants nothing more than to sing and play music but he has the sad misfortune of being part of, as he grouses early on, the only family in Mexico that hates music. That’s because years early, his great-grandmother (Victor) had been deserted by her husband who left to go become a musician and had never returned. The experience had scarred her and ever since her decree that there would be no music in the house had been continued by the matriarchs that followed – Manuel’s mother (Ubach) being the most recent one.

But Manuel’s hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Bratt) who has long since passed on urges him from old movies not to give up and follow his dream. However as the family prepares for the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, Manuel and his mother have a confrontation, smashing his guitar which Manuel absolutely needs to compete in a musical competition that might be the first step on the road to attaining his dreams. Desperate, he decides to take the guitar hanging in the crypt of Ernesto de la Cruz. When Manuel strums the guitar to make sure it’s in tune, he is magically transported to the Land of the Dead.

It is a place where Manuel definitely doesn’t belong and the longer he stays, the more likely it is he will never leave. He needs a relative’s blessing to send him home but his great-grandmother won’t give it unless he promises to renounce music, which is the same as renouncing himself as far as Manuel is concerned. Then, to Manuel’s amazement, signs point to the identity of his true father – Ernesto de la Cruz himself.  Getting to see the great star in the afterlife is no easier than getting to see him was in life so Manuel enlists the aid of Héctor (Garcia) who claims to know him which Héctor agrees to give provided that Manuel makes sure that Hector is remembered by the living which keeps his skeletal spirit from drifting away (which is what happens to his pal Chicharrón (Olmos) in one of the most emotional scenes in the film).

But there are no easy paths to one’s dream and especially, no easy paths to the Land of the Living. The fall-out of a crime that happened decades earlier begins to take possession of the narrative and Manuel wonders if he is not learning the value of family too late for him to practice it in the Land of the Living. And the most intriguing question of all is to be answered – why is this movie named Coco?

This is absolutely a return to form for Pixar, one of their best ever and certainly their best in at least five or ten years. Unkrich and Molina have crafted a vibrant world that is both fascinating and fun. Kids will love the bright colors, the spirit guide animals and the goofy Tim Burton-esque skeletons, while adults will be partial to the family-friendly message, the genuinely moving scenes (particularly in the last act) and some of the beautiful images such as the flower-strewn bridge from the Land of the Living to the Land of the Dead.

The movie is inevitably going to be compared to Fox’s similarly-themed Book of Life and there is some justification to that. The Fox film had the benefit of the participation of Guillermo del Toro as a producer; some say that his input made that film just a little bit more magical and perhaps that’s true but to be honest I’m not certain how much input he had into the creative aspect of the film. I’m not saying he didn’t have any, I’m just saying I don’t know how much involvement he had in it. The music of Coco has also been unfavorably to that of Book of Life which is absolute malarkey. The Fox film used mariachi versions of American pop hits; Pixar opted to go with original music written in the Ranchera style. The exception is the execrable hit “Remember Me,” which was written by the Frozen team; the rest of the music is absolutely amazing and enjoyable.

Pixar’s animators took a lot of time watching guitar virtuosos play the music that was actually used in the film; therefore the fingering that is onscreen is the correct fingering for that song. Nobody does the details quite like Pixar does and you might think “what does it matter?” Trust me, it matters.

There are a couple of things that stand out as unusual for modern animated features. First off, we have a plucky young boy in the lead. Disney tends to prefer their princesses to their pirates when it comes to animation; it is refreshing to see a young lad getting to shine in an animated feature. On a second and far more important note, the movie is culturally sensitive to the point it has resonated not only with Hispanics here in the United States but it has been a massive hit in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Not only is that a smart financial move on Disney’s part but it’s the right thing to do at a time when our President has characterized the people of our neighbor to the South as rapists and thieves who live in a s***hole country. I’m all for teaching our kids tolerance and acceptance of different cultures.

One part of the Mexican culture that every other culture can relate to is the importance of family and that lesson is brought home in a heartwarming but not too sweet way. I was misty-eyed at various points of the film but particularly near its conclusion. I genuinely cared about the characters and about what they meant to each other. I’m generally not one for purchasing Disney films for our digital video library – my wife is the Disneyphile in our family – but this one I’m going to insist we get.

The only quibbles are that Gonzalez is a little bland and unremarkable as Manuel and some of the plot is absolutely predictable although to be fair there are some really good twists that come along – like for example why the film is named Coco in the first place. I have to say that this is my favorite Pixar film since Up and although not quite up to that standard completely, it comes quite close and may over time usurp that film’s position as my favorite Pixar film ever.

REASONS TO GO: The music and songs are outstanding. Beautiful, colorful backgrounds make this a visual treat. A genuinely heartwarming film, especially near the end.
REASONS TO STAY: Gonzalez is a bit nondescript.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some cartoon violence and a few serious thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Coco is currently the highest grossing film in Mexican box office history, surpassing The Avengers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 00/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Book of Life
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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The Book of Life


Viva Mexico!

Viva Mexico!

(2014) Animated Feature (20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Diego Luna, Channing Tatum, Zoe Saldana, Ice Cube, Christina Applegate, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo, Carlos Alazraqui, Ana de la Reguera, Emil-Bastien Bouffard, Elias Garza, Genesis Ochoa, Placido Domingo, Gabriel Iglesias, Miguel Sandoval, Grey deLisle, Dan Navarro, Sandra Echeverria. Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez

They say the only two sure things in life are death and taxes. That’s not strictly true; there is one other sure thing – that love wins out over everything. All three of those items however are sure things in all cultures although they tend to put their own spins on everything. Take Mexico, for example.

At a museum a group of snot-nosed little brats are given a museum tour by the bemused Mary Beth (Applegate). She brings them into an as-of-yet unopened exhibit on Mexico and presents to them the Book of Life, an amazing magical book that contains all the stories ever written and proceeds to present to them a story from San Angel, a small village in Mexico. The town lives constantly in fear of the reprehensible bandit Chakal (Navarro).

There Manolo (Luna) comes from a long line of heroic bull fighters including his prideful father Carlos (Elizondo) and an acerbic grandmother (deLisle). His closest friend is Joaquin (Tatum) whose father died a hero. Joaquin wants nothing more than to be the hero his father was, if not greater. With them is Maria (Saldana), a headstrong little charmer whose father General Posada (Alazraqui) is alcalde of the village of San Angel. Both boys vie for the hand of Maria, who is sent away to Europe to learn manners.

When she returns, she is a beautiful young woman. Joaquin has become a heroic soldier in defense of the town and in fact, all of Mexico. Manolo shows potential to be the greatest Sanchez of them all but longs to be a troubadour, guitar in hand and spends most of his free time playing mariachi music with Pepe (Iglesias) much to the disapproval of his father. The two young men resume their rivalry although they continue to be the best of friends.

Unbeknownst to anyone in the village, two rulers of the underworld – La Muerte (del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered and Xibalba (Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten – have taken interest in the situation with Manolo, Joaquin and Maria and have enacted a little wager. If Xibalba wins, he gets to rule the vibrant Land of the Remembered which is an eternal fiesta. Given that the Land of the Forgotten is a depressing wasteland, he will do whatever it takes to win the wager – including to cheat. He makes sure that not only does Manolo lose the wager but that he is bitten by a particularly venomous snake in the bargain.

Manolo awakens in the Land of the Remembered where souls who are remembered and loved by someone in world of the living, a colorful land that gets even more festive on the Day of the Dead (which is when I happened to see the movie – how is that for smart planning?) when the fiesta turns epic. Manolo meets his mother (de la Reguera) as well as other deceased members of the Sanchez family including the opera singer wannabe Jorge (Domingo). However, Manolo doesn’t want to be dead. He wants to return because his love for Maria is so strong.

Realizing that Xibalba had a hand in Monolo’s premature demise, Monolo’s family agree to help him go see The Candle Maker (Cube), a jovial god who is in charge of maintaining balance in the universe.  But the way to his domain is a perilous one and in Monolo’s absence San Angel is in mortal danger. Can Manolo save the day after he’s already dead?

The visuals here are charming and inventive, colorful and arresting. Based on Mexican folk art particularly the work of Jose Guadalupe Posada, the characters resemble wooden marionettes with a curiously human overlay. You’ve never seen anything quite like this.

While most animated features are fairy tales, this is folklore (there is quite a difference) even though the story is essentially an original one, it’s roots are in characters and symbols that exist in Mexican folklore traditions. Although a bit sugar coated and watered down, there is still some kernels of Mexico here and carry a flavor of that country that is as real and vibrant as a properly made guacamole.

Gutierrez wisely casts actors with distinctive voices that make their roles personable and memorable. He also casts a good deal of Hispanic actors in the role some of whom might be unfamiliar to you but are stars in Mexico, like telenovela heroine del Castillo, leading man Luna (who has appeared in a number of Hollywood films as well), action hero Trejo and comedians Iglesias and Cheech Marin.

There are also several gringos in the cast – Tatum, Elizondo (who is of Portuguese descent), Saldana, Ice Cube and Applegate. All of the cast, Hispanic and otherwise, perform admirably. The plot may be paper-thin and resemble typical animated plots in construction, but the visuals and Mexican cultural overlay elevate the movie from the typical.

Now there may be a few who take offense at some of the images – a giant mustache on Mexico as the center of a universe that looks uncannily like a sombrero and the characters who nearly all look like something out of a theme park version of Mexico with serapes, sombreros and facial hair adorning nearly every character. There is also the old trope of a woman being fought over like she’s the Publisher’s Clearing House prize. However, I suspect that this is not done so much as perpetuating stereotypes as it is making gentle fun of them as the filmmakers treat these things with affection. It is part of the Mexican culture to be humorously self-effacing.

It is nice to see an animated feature that isn’t largely just like all the others. Even Pixar has put out one or two of these lately. In a year where family audiences have been under-served, this comes as a breath of fresh air. Hopefully families will embrace this movie rather than reject it because of its cultural element; the soft box office it has had leads me to suspect that there are some families who are choosing not to see it because they aren’t interested in the Mexican culture at all. I hope not, but I do have to wonder in a country that has not grown out of its racist tendencies yet (as evidenced by draconian laws in Arizona and a refusal to overhaul its immigration policies aimed squarely at keeping Mexicans out) that this beautifully made feature hasn’t been a bigger hit than it is – or deserves to be.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderfully inventive and beautiful animation. All the voices have character.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure if its making fun of racial and gender stereotypes or perpetuating them.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rude humor and mildly scary images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paul Williams was approached to co-write a pair of songs on the soundtrack because director Jorge R. Gutierrez was a fan of his work in Phantom of the Paradise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Corpse Bride
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Ouija