Coco (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Coco (2017)

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Miguel loves his family, and his family loves him, but Miguel isn't allowed to play or listen to music.  He hides himself to play guitar along with recordings of his hero, the deceased star Ernesto de la Cruz.  When he tries to obtain a guitar for a talent competition, Miguel is whisked away into the land of the dead where he may have to give up music to keep his life.  Lee Unkrich directs Coco, with the screenplay written by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, and stars Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, and Benjamin Bratt.

Leave it to a "kids" animated film to create a vision of the afterlife more existentially terrifying than the prospect of oblivion.  In Coco, the afterlife is populated by the animated skeletal remains of those whose families and communities still remember them on the Day of the Dead.  That means inequality continues for the masses after we die, and the only thing keeping our sliver of ego intact is the living effort to remember the dead.  I'm sure this particular idea of ego continuance is reassuring to some folks, but I dunno how I'd feel about fading away as some rich jerk reigns supreme because a few thousand desperate folks went to the jerk's seminar.

Setting aside obvious questions - like why the dead can't celebrate each other since they're clearly fine creating huge arenas to house their now spirit-bound egos - Coco is pretty good.  It's not to the quality peak of WALL-E or Inside Out, but sits well above the increasingly tasteless "the Holocaust - but for toys!" approach of Toy Story 3.  The only thing to avoid, unless you really want to or have an undergraduate seminar paper to write, is the previously mentioned idea of the still class-structured afterlife (which, I promise, is the last time I'll point out as terrifying).  Otherwise, listen with your eyes and follow along with your ears, and you'll likely have a pleasant time.

The holiest of moments, getting into a musical groove, form the backbone of Coco.

That might seem an odd way to phrase how Coco was best enjoyed by me, but it's the truth.  The most powerful parts of Coco involve Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) appreciating and having communion with music.  It's peaceful, and quite beautiful, watching Miguel feel his way through the music with his eyes closed and to hear his hands follow along with his hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).  The lit candles and soft glow of the television join with director Lee Unkrich's circular pan around Miguel to further emphasize the ritual.

More of this and Coco might have been top-tier Pixar material.  Instead we get more of the same bustling village vibe (complete with musical interlude) that's punctuated plenty of other animated films throughout the years.  I also admit to some exhaustion when it comes to CGI films, and Coco's use of more interesting animation in the beginning via figures moving through woven tapestries brought my attention to how boring CGI is.  Coco is serviceable though consistently lacking in the freedom of movement animation can offer.

Even with that, I'm glad Unkrich didn't direct Coco as an uncontrollable explosion of color.  Stories in and around the Day of the Dead invite garish exaggeration in cinema but Coco's muted color palette aids some of the comedy on top of the drama.  One hilarious high involves the spirit of Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) organizing a show consisting of dancers, papayas, and tears.  The exact proportions and additional ingredients I'll leave you to discover, but the muted palette plays heavy into the punchline when one liquid substitutes for another.

When Coco hits its down beats, and as a Pixar film in the modern era there are a handful, the less vibrant palette also gives gravitas to the fantasy.  The stunner here involves a beautifully wounded vocal performance by Edward James Olmos as one of the soon to be forgotten and Miguel's dead partner Héctor (Gael García Bernal).  It's an adult fantasy, to feel death while still experiencing something you loved when alive, and the soft purple and blue of the night sky gives the scene moment the feel of a doomed romance.

Coco is not as vibrant or garish as I expected and this is to its credit.

The music and songs are an interesting case.  Michael Giacchino wrote the music while Giacchino, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez, Germaine Franco, and Adrian Molina wrote the songs. Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez won an Oscar for "Remember Me", which is flexible to the dead and living alike but its pliability makes it a bit dull (I like my remembrance songs more dramatic).  I'm a much bigger fan of the snappy "El Poco Loco" by Franco and Molina, and Giacchino's guitar carries so many scenes on its own I could close my eyes and get as clear a picture of what was happening onscreen as if they were open.

Coco ends as many Pixar films must - through heartbreak felt with diluted child's enthusiasm and seen through the eyes of weary adults before awkwardly cutting to poppier music.  The formula strains while the details guide Coco to being a fine way to spend an afternoon.  If you aren't inspired by the music or visuals you can at least count on Frida to make things weird for a moment.

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Coco (2017)

Directed by Lee Unkrich.
Screenplay written by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich.
Starring Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, and Benjamin Bratt.

Posted by Andrew

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