The striking chords of music separate a boy and his deceased family to The Land of the Dead, in Pixar Animation’s newest ‘Coco’. Despite his family’s baffling generations-old ban on music, Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt). Through daily viewings of video tapes and a shrine dedicated to Cruz, Miguel puts in the hours to becoming a signature guitar player with very little luck along the way. Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself in the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead following a mysterious chain of events. Along the way, he meets charming trickster Hector (voice of Gael García Bernal), and together, they set off on an extraordinary journey to unlock the real story behind Miguel’s family history. ‘Coco’ is written and directed by Adrian Molina, and is rated PG for thematic elements.
Music can serve and narrate the link between the past and present in ways that can tenderly preserve our memories. This was my biggest takeaway from ‘Coco’, the newest grand slam strike from a company that continues to amaze and raise the bar with each passing year; Disney Pixar. Once again, this company strikes gold in emulating the very traditions and lifestyles of a foreign land in a way that is not only educational for youths with a thirst for exploration, but also intelligent for the way that it carefully juggles the tone of every scene. Like only a couple of films before it, ‘Coco’ took me on a high speed rush of emotional versatility that made me feel bi-polar because of how much can resonate from within in a single 100 minute sitting. Besides the moral of the story that I took away, there’s so much more to this film that provides the perfect family gathering this Thanksgiving weekend, harvesting an urgency for life, as well as a celebration for the deceased that vibrantly decodes the link between these two entirely vast worlds. This is very much a movie that makes you feel enlightened when you leave the theater, and that’s a feat that I feel a lot of films (especially kids movies) are missing from this current day and age. This proves that Pixar isn’t just crafting kids films, but films that cater to every age spectrum that never limits their profound voice.
This is very much a script that takes its time in getting to know our characters pasts respectively, but it moves along so sharp that I never felt bored or dragged down by the endless exposition. The first half Molina’s script follows near the casual setups of a protagonist who is searching to find his voice in more ways than one, but what evolved proves that the information in the trailers is only table dressing to the much tastier main course. The film is a mystery at times, and crosses into the theme of needing to invest in our pasts if we are to continue forth with our futures. This provides plenty of surprises along the way, including a plot twist midway through that takes its cues from the ‘Blade Runner 2049’ school of storytelling that this film even did slightly better. There’s also great thought and imagination invested into the very world building that Molina confidently casts upon his shoulders. The kinds of themes and rules are a throwback to the very legends of Mexican tradition that are past down from one generation to the next, feeding into the finely tuned engine of intelligence that ‘Coco’ carves out for itself. Believe me when I say that this is a screenplay that will at the very least touch your heart, but for the select few, it will resonate in a way that transfixes you with the music that serenades your soul.
On that topic, we have a spirited contender for best musical soundtrack of 2017. At this point, Disney is turning out earworms that live and breed inside of our heads, and the best decision is not to fight it, but go with irresistible melodies that get your toes tapping. Michael Giacchnino’s collection of songs moves at many tempos fast and slow, highlighting the many moments that require an essence of song in the air, but what impressed me most was the insertion of these inevitable hits that built their deliveries. As to where most musicals insert songs every five minutes of the movie, often creating scenes of song that don’t feel authentic in their dissertation, ‘Coco’ carefully reserves the proper moment in time to deliver these numbers. The most important thing here is that the music is working hand-in-hand with the story, firing on double cylinders that brings out the most in terms of confidence for both aspects. Songs have been important in films, but in this movie it feels like breathing for this family of personalities that have either thrived or been left to rot because of it. Either way, I see a lot of Itunes purchases being made for Giacchino’s stirring audible revelation that struck more than just a chord with my heart and ensuing tears that followed.
The performances were all around incredible by this big name group of actors young and old that carve out something far beyond the one-dimensional protagonists that we’ve come to sadly expect. My favorite is definitely Bernal as Hector, the antsy wild card of the film that steers a bit to close to ever be forgotten. What makes Bernal’s voicing so memorable here is that he allows himself to get lost in the character, channeling a sadness and longing because of being forgotten that has paralyzed his time in the afterlife. The chemistry between the tag team of he and Gonzalez leaves nothing to be desired in the very way that it establishes two characters who we yearn to spend more time with, and soon it becomes evident how desperately they need each other. Speaking of which, the little boy himself commands the film with such innocence and wonder that make him feel years ahead of his young age in real life. Anthony himself is certainly no rookie when it comes to acting or singing, but his grasp of both firmly exceeded my wildest expectations for how a child can command a crowd both on and off of screen. Benjamin Bratt also leaves a lasting impression as charmingly arrogant De La Cruz. Behind every immense pop star, there’s a personality a mile long, and Bratt is happy to oblige with such suave debonair that makes it easy to fall to his musical seduction.
Without question though, my single favorite aspect of the film is in the endlessly intense attention to detail that fronts an artistic flow that crushes any other animated film this year in its path. When I see an animated film, I always speak of rendering, shading, and color palate, and this film hits the mark with precision on all of them. The backdrops and landscapes in this Land of the Dead provided so many awestruck moments when it feels like their luminous lights and high-stacked houses stretch further than the eye can see, but how is the character detail? My answer is PERFECTLY. It’s getting to the point where it is truly scary how much Pixar is mastering every small detail to make a character stand out. What I mean by this is just how many differences in bone structure that the film goes through for its hundreds of the dead that get even a second of screen time, as well as spots or moles on skin for those in the living. The hair threads themselves on character heads feel like you can reach out and touch them at any time, only to be topped by the design of Grandma Coco that better win the production an Oscar or I will scream my lungs out in anger. The wrinkle patterns and rendering of this aging woman confined to a chair had me demanding to pause the film just to soak in how fluently she moved to that of her respective age and situation, and I’ve never seen anything so jaw-dropping illustration when it comes to matching that of a live action counterpart.
What small problems I had with the film were so miniscule that it barely requires mentioning, but two things stand-out like a cancer in an overall production that is nearly perfect. The first is the one roadblock in the animation from a group of flying beast characters (they look like tigers) that alienated the consistency of every person or property around them. The beasts have a strange color design to their characters, but my concern is more in the outline of their designs that screams computer animation. If it were up to me, I wish they weren’t even in the film, as their inclusion even feels like it stretches the rules that were carefully constructed in this other world. The other (and much bigger) problem involved the rules provided in the exposition that doesn’t make sense later on. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I will just say that a character in the Land of the Dead is slowly deteriorating because his loved ones can’t remember him. This of course makes no sense because one of his loved ones is indeed with him throughout the film walking, talking, and all else communicating with him. If I spoke to my Mother directly, IT MEANS I DID NOT FORGET ABOUT HER. My point is that this character should never be deteriorating, and it otherwise feels like an obvious ploy to dramatic pulse in a film that was otherwise dealing with death and its themes maturely.
THE VERDICT – Coco will remind you that you have a pulse, in all of its heartwarming family pleasantries and endless ambition to follow your dreams that will provide inspiration aplenty to those who seek it. The animation feels three-dimensional without the need for eye-cramping glasses, and an energetically spirited musical score by Giacchino brings it all home with a tempo-building final performance that concludes with electricity. It’s a responsibly refreshing story that bridges the worlds of the living and the dead impeccably, bringing to light the importance of family that can’t be diminished by either.