By Nathan Evans
As I watched Pixar’s latest work of artistic genius, ‘Coco’, I couldn’t stop comparing it to last year’s Laika Studios produced ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’. The films have similar premises that revolve around a particular culture’s folklore, music and musings on death, despite their two very different, yet equally impressive forms of animation. While both films are worth your attention, ‘Coco’ is more fully realized and succeeds in the few spots where ‘Kubo’ underwhelmed. Where ‘Kubo’ concerned itself with Japanese folklore, ‘Coco’ revolves around Mexican fables; particularly the “Dia de los Muertos” or the “Day of the Dead”.
The star of the show is a young boy named Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez). Miguel comes from a long line of shoemakers, a profession his great great grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach) founded after she and her daughter, Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), were abandoned by her mysterious mariachi husband. Spurned by the love of her life, Imelda instituted a generation spanning ban on all things music. This serves as something of a problem for young Miguel who has no greater desire than to become a famous mariachi like his cinematic hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).
Desperate to follow his dream and escape the family business, Miguel steals off to the town square where a talent competition is being held to celebrate “Dia de los Muertos”. Without a guitar to participate in the competition, Miguel decides to break into de la Cruz’s crypt to borrow his. With one strum of the famous instrument, Miguel discovers there is a price to pay for stealing from the deceased and is transported to the land of the dead. Once there he realizes he cannot return to the living world without the blessing of his ancestor Imelda who, even in the afterlife, won’t budge on her music ban. Miguel refuses to accept Imelda’s conditions, and with the aid of a vagrant spirit unable to visit his own family during the holiday named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), he strikes out to find Ernesto de la Cruz himself in the hopes that his blessing will allow him to return home.
What elevates ‘Coco’ above Pixar’s other excellent work is its maturity. The film is one of a handful of Pixar movies that have earned a PG rating rather than the usual G. This move doesn’t feel calculated, rather it feels as if the story were developed organically and that the subject matter alone warranted the rating. As the film revolves around the “Day of the Dead”, death is a subject that ‘Coco’ tackles head on, and as we’ve come to expect from the company, Pixar handles the theme with sensitivity and tact. Rather than instilling its young viewers with a sense of dread at the inevitable prospect, ‘Coco’ celebrates it by placing the focus on the living and their familial duty to remember those that have passed on.
That’s not to say that the film is all sunshine and rainbows, though. When it comes to the film’s villain (a character I won’t spoil by naming here) there’s actually a palpable sense of menace. ‘Coco’ doesn’t only deal in death, it also deals with murder and abandonment; concepts absent from most children’s films. ‘Coco’s’ readiness to deal with the uglier aspects of life lends much needed heft to the film, a heft that’s been missing from children’s entertainment since the days of Roald Dahl.
Helping to ease the headiness of the material is the breathtaking animation and the excellent original songs that permeate the film. Pixar’s always been on the cutting edge of animation, but they continue to top themselves with each release. ‘Coco’ stuns with a Day-Glo palette and animation that’s seemingly impossibly detailed. A simple sequence involving Hector attempting to break into the land of the living across a bridge made of glowing orange leaves had my jaw hanging open in disbelief. Ironically, in comparison to the film’s themes, there’s such life within the images throughout that I often found myself wondering if what I was seeing were truly CGI and not practical claymation puppets or the like (something that drew further comparisons to ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’).
While Disney is known for their musicals, Pixar gives them a run for their money here. There’s more of a focus in ‘Coco’ on music than in other Pixar films due to Miguel’s desire to live up to Ernesto de la Cruz’s example. As a result, rather than feeling forced like they do in many musicals, the numbers in ‘Coco’ feel organic and the songs less cloying. ‘Remember Me’, the film’s main piece of music, is particularly excellent; both when it’s performed by de la Cruz on stage and in a flashback scene where its sung to a young ‘Coco’ by her mysterious father; a scene that left this grown ass man in grown ass man tears.
As we’ve come to expect from Pixar, ‘Coco’ is almost a perfect product, but if one’s determined enough to spot them, there are flaws to be had. The only real criticism I can levy at the picture has to do with some of the twists that take place within the narrative: you can see them coming a mile away. Granted this is a children’s film and not, say, Brian De Palma’s twisting ‘Mission Impossible’, but it’s a flaw that’s all the more noticeable because the rest of the film is so good. The creators at Pixar are master storytellers capable of engaging audiences both young and old, and while the twists will probably catch the younger set off guard, their parents might find themselves a tad let down at some of the revelations. Of course, in the overall scheme of things, that complaint’s so inconsequential I can barely even consider it a nitpick.
‘Coco’ is one of the best, if not the best, films Pixar has ever produced. Every facet of its production is top notch, its story is touching, and its tale is epic in scope (an ambition Pixar’s ‘Brave’ failed to achieve). As an added bonus, the film is preceded by an overlong, uninspired holiday short set within the world of Disney’s ‘Frozen’. The short film is harmless enough, but its lackluster presence only serves to make the audiences that are forced to sit through it appreciate ‘Coco’ all the more.
RATING: A+ -OR- 5 OUT OF 5
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