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Three Views: Coco

November 22, 2017

Coco Review By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

At this point, Pixar has a pretty stellar track record of delivering films that draw us in with their dazzling animation, and keep us hooked with precision storytelling, memorable characters, and powerfully moving scenes.  And Coco, the studio’s latest – which I have been anticipating for several years now since it was first announced as an untitled movie about Día de los Muertos – is no exception to this rule.  It’s a knockout.

Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old boy in Mexico who dreams of singing and playing guitar, just like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a beloved singer who is remembered in their village long after his untimely death.  But since a musician abandoned them to go perform, his family has a generations old ban on music, enforced by his strict Abuelita (Renée Victor), and he is expected to follow in their shoemaking business instead.

It’s the Day of the Dead, and Miguel wants to perform in the village’s local talent show, but his family forbids it.  When he finds an old picture that reveals he is actually related to his musician idol, Miguel abandons his family and tries to steal the guitar from de la Cruz’s tomb, which transports him to the Land of the Dead.  Here he meets his long deceased relatives, including his great-great-grandmother Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach), and he teams up with a skeleton named Héctor (Gael García Bernal), a charming grifter who claims to know de la Cruz, and only asks that Miguel bring his picture back to the land of the living.  But Miguel needs a family member’s blessing in order to return before sunrise, or else he will turn into a skeleton, and he hopes that de la Cruz will be able to give it to him.

The film is named for Miguel’s great-grandmother Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía), who is growing increasingly forgetful, and spends her days in an old rocking chair pushed into the corner.  Through this, Coco comes to explore the importance of remembrance, and how memories are what allow our loved ones to live on after they pass away.  If you have no one left to remember you in the living world, then you are eventually forgotten in the Land of the Dead as well.  This is the fate that will befall Héctor if Miguel doesn’t get his picture back in time, because spirits can only cross back over if their pictures have been placed on an Ofrenda, the shrine-like displays where family members put photos and offerings for their deceased loved ones.  This is a very moving idea, and one of the most haunting elements of the film.

The film spans two worlds and several generations, while exploring fundamental questions of life and death.  There is an ambitiousness to the storytelling here that makes Coco thrilling to watch, recalling the maturity and sophistication of Ratatouille.  The story moves at a good pace, setting up the world and characters in the first act, and perfectly building towards the emotional payoff of the film’s stunning second half.  There is a great twist partway through, which I wouldn’t think of spoiling here, but it takes the story in a deeper and darker direction that leads to some of the studio’s most heart-wrenching scenes since Toy Story 3 and Inside Out.  I was moved to tears multiple times throughout the film.

The film does an excellent job of balancing these darker elements with moments of levity, sometimes courtesy of delightful street dog Dante, and it’s a mix that the studio has honed to a tee.  Héctor is the perfect example of a Pixar character who delivers both humour and great pathos, with his disguises and ability to pop his bones apart offering comic relief, as his narrative arc and character motivations also provide the emotional heart and soul of the film, not unlike Inside Out‘s Bing Bong.  The story explores how some people are remembered over others, whether they deserve it or not, and the film has some interesting things to say about celebrity worship, and how sometimes meeting your idol can drastically change your perception of them, a message that is especially resonant right now.

This is also the closest Pixar has ever come to making a musical, even working in a couple of musical numbers, with music playing a big role in the film.  One of Coco‘s most powerful themes is about how music serves as a universal language that bonds us together, which is beautifully conveyed through the song “Remember Me,” a lovely tune that was written by Frozen songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, and is poignantly used at several points throughout the film.  The soundtrack also features several other charming songs, and the wonderful Mariachi-flavoured score by Michael Giacchino is another highlight of the film.

The film is directed by Toy Story 3‘s Lee Unkrich, who is no stranger to delivering powerfully moving scenes, and it’s co-directed by Adrian Molina, who pays tribute to his own Mexican heritage through the film.  As such, Coco provides a glorious love letter to Mexican culture and the many Día de los Muertos traditions.  The film even works in the brightly coloured fantastical creatures called Alebrijes, who are a staple of Mexican folk art and act as spirit guides.  The painstaking lengths that the filmmakers took to ensure that the film is culturally accurate have paid off, and it’s already the highest grossing film of all time in Mexico, where it has been playing since last month.

All of the artists who worked on the film have done an exceptional job, and Coco is worth seeing in theatres for their work alone.  The film is visually breathtaking to watch.  The animation is absolutely gorgeous and full of vibrant colours, especially in the Land of the Dead scenes, with a visually striking marigold petal path that acts as a bridge between the worlds.  The lighting alone is absolutely incredible, and the amount of detail is astounding.  The other interesting element of the character designs is that the skeletons have eyes to make their faces more emotive, which serves as a very affective stylistic choice, especially in close ups.  The entire voice cast does great work bringing these characters to life, from promising newcomer Anthony Gonzalez, right up to the veteran members of the ensemble.

The final scenes are as heartbreaking as they are bittersweet, and Coco is especially poignant in its quiet, sombre moments, touching on grand themes of legacy and loss, and how our spirits ultimately live on through the relatives that we leave behind to remember us.  This is a wonderful and profoundly moving exploration of memory, the power of music, and the intergenerational bonds between family.  Like the best of Pixar’s work, Coco sticks with you.

Playing before Coco is Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, a brand new Christmas special that follows Disney’s mega hit.  When sisters Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) realize that they don’t have any family traditions of their own with which to celebrate Christmas, Olaf (Josh Gad) and Sven set out to find traditions around the village to bring back to the castle.  The songs are fun, the story is cute, and I found it absolutely delightful.  And it’s a good length at around 22 minutes.

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Héctor (Gael García Bernal) and Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) in Coco

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Coco Review By Erin Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Pixar has a long line of films that have become classics in the repertoire of replayed films by children and adults alike.  Coco deserves to be no exception.

The story of Coco centres around a young Mexican boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) who has a passion for music.  His passion is fuelled by his idolation of Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a famous singer and guitar player from his village who went on to star in movies before his tragic death.  It is from his films that Miguel learns to play guitar, watching and rewatching his old performances.  But unfortunately for Miguel, his family hates music and has dedicated themselves to being shoemakers ever since his great-great-grandfather ran away, leaving his family behind, to go perform.  Miguel’s elderly great-grandmother Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) is this musician’s daughter, but unfortunately she has Alzheimer’s and does not remember much of her father who left when she was young.

When Miguel finds an old family photo though and becomes convinced that his idol de la Cruz may actually be his great-great-grandfather, he decides to hide no more and enters a talent competition without his family’s permission.  He never gets there though, when an incident where he tries to take de la Cruz’s old guitar from his tomb to perform launches Miguel into the world of the Afterlife.

The film takes place on Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead – when those family members with pictures on a Ofrenda (a sort of altar where gifts are offered to deceased relatives and friends) are able to cross back over into the world of the living and see their families.  Miguel however gets caught going to other way and meets up with his family in the land of the dead, and it is here that the majority of the film takes place as Miguel meets his ancestors and finds out about his family history against music, while all the while trying to figure out a way to get back home before the night is over and the bridge between the two worlds collapses.  Still at odds with even his family over his musical affinity, he gets help from Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) to try to find Ernesto de la Cruz in hopes he can help.

The film is artfully made, with stunning design elements.  The land of the dead is a colourful world filled with skeletons and Alebrijes (spirit creatures that guide the souls between the worlds) and overall is filled with a magical quality.  The design of the characters is appealing, and the voice work by all of the actors involved is spot-on, including the performance from young Anthony Gonzalez who was cast as Miguel after initially providing the scratch voice for the character.

Of course, one thing that must be mentioned is the music – the original songs that appear in de la Cruz’s performances and Miguel’s are well-done and in the case of “Remember Me” in particular, play into the story in a crucial way.  Miguel’s journey and discovery of his family’s history with music is beautifully mastered with all the artistry we have come to expect from Pixar.  The film is equal parts entertaining and moving, with a powerful emotional arc near the end that has the power to move you to tears.  It is in this scene that we know why the film is called ‘Coco’.

I highly recommend seeing Coco in theatres if you can, as the visuals and audio are stunning and deserve to be seen in the large format.  It is also one of the best films of the year.

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Abuelita (Renée Victor) and Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) in Coco

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Coco Review By Tony Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Coco is the first Pixar film to feature an almost all Indigenous cast, like Disney’s recent Moana, in a sincere effort to honour their culture, a welcome change from the Disney of less-enlightened times with its insensitive stereotypes and cultural appropriations. The film is centered around the Día de Muertos, which combines the post-Halloween Christian feast of All Souls with native Mesoamerican traditions of honouring the dead. Family shrines (ofrendas) are set up with likenesses of and treats for ancestors, with Aztec marigold petals strewn to guide the path of their spirits to visit their families on that night.

Coco is the ancient great-grandmother of the 12 year old hero Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez). Confined to a wicker chair on wheels, she is content as life goes on around her in their little Mexican town even if barely cognizant (or “checked out” as the folks at Pixar say). Believing Coco’s father had abandoned his family to live as a Mariachi musician, Coco’s daughter and Miguel’s Abuelita (Renee Victor) fiercely enforces the renunciation of all music in a family now devoted to the cobbler trade. Miguel, however, loves Mariachi music, idolizing the legendary singer/actor Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) from his town who died in 1942 and suspecting that he may be related to him.

Desperate to enter a local Mariachi competition, Miguel goes to borrow the guitar in the tomb of de la Cruz, but when he tries to play it, he finds himself in the Land of the Dead. Everyone here is a clothed skeleton with faces like the traditional masks worn on Día de Muertos. Animals appear as multicoloured winged spirit guides that spit fire like dragons. To return to the land of the living before the night is over, Miguel must get permission from a dead ancestor. Since most of them do not approve of his musical ambitions, Miguel goes looking for de la Cruz. He is accompanied by the stray dog Dante from his village and a shady but charming character that he meets named Héctor (Gael García Bernal) who claims to know de la Cruz.

Seven years in the making, Coco is already hailed by many as Pixar’s best film yet, and I can see why. Directed by Pixar veteran Lee Unkrich and co-directed by Adrian Molina, it has been extremely well-received in Mexico where it opened a month before its U.S. premiere. One is immediately dazzled by the rich colours, especially in the Land of the Dead, and the charming Mariachi inspired score by Michael Giacchino. The animation is flawless, not only for the actors but also the wayward-tongued Aztec hairless Xolo dog Dante and other creatures,  with meticulous attention to details such as the fingering on guitars.

As for Moana, the worldwide search for a lead actor came up with the perfect kid right in the U.S.A. Anthony Gonzalez had been busking with his siblings in a L.A. barrio since the age of four and in his interview without being asked he impressed the studio with his singing. Also just like Moana, he has a joyful surprise “You got the Part” video to look back on.

The stories with most universal appeal are often set in specific times and places. One doesn’t have to believe in Mexican traditions or magic realism to share in the celebration of one’s ancestors with feasting and good memories. All this wrapped around a really gripping story with charming music makes Coco a timeless treasure.

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Consensus: Beautifully animated, deeply emotional, and filled with wonderful moments, Coco is a powerfully moving animated film that explores deep themes of memory and family, and ranks alongside Pixar’s best works. ★★★★ (out of 4)

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