Review: "COCO" is another Pixar gem

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Pixar's 19th feature has more or less been conceived as a tribute to Mexican culture. Its writer-director Lee Unkrich was the brains behind 2010's "Toy Story 3." This latest Pixar is the first, to my knowledge at least, to deal with non-Caucasian lead human characters. In fact, that's probably the most innovative part of "Coco," which is nevertheless a transporting and entertaining addition to the Pixar canon. 

The film's main protagonist is 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez, in fine vocal form) who was raised by his family to disavow anything having to do with music. It's been three generations since the Riveras have even heard music in the house, mostly due to Miguel's great, great grandfather abandoning the family and pursuing his dream of being a musician. Not too long after the departure, the family had to reinvent itself and got into the shoemaking business. The rules of the house are simple: NO MUSIC WHATSOEVER, not even singing.

Miguel, however, loves music and violates the Rivera rule – over the years, he has taught himself to play the guitar in the isolated family attic, which has become a shrine filled with lit candles and placarded pictures of his musical idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). De la Cruz died young, when he was smashed by a church bell while performing, but he left countless classics in both song and musical black and white films, of which Miguel has memorized every word. Unkirch and his animators do Miguel’s finger playing on his guitar strings in marvelously rendered way, you can truly feel every fret pushed down and every string strummed.

Since there is no persuading the family to change their outlook on music, Miguel's talent for elegant guitar playing and singing is kept secret. He does put himself in a bit of heat when he announces to his family of his intention to perform at the Día de los Muertos talent show as part of the "Day of the Dead" traditional, yearly celebrations for which Mexico is well known. The family becomes suspicious; Miguel’s replica Ernesto de la Cruz skull-necked guitar is discovered and smashed by his abuelita (Renee Victor). Miguel runs away, leaving his family in a panic.

Guitarless for the competition, Miguel decides to sneak into Ernesto de la Cruz’s burial chamber, a kind of monument for the legend, and steal his exhibited guitar. The act throws down a curse on Miguel and has him sent down to the Land of the Dead, a kind of underworld where skeletal figures loom, only surviving off their living relatives' memories of them. The way Unkirch envisions this afterlife is as a candy-colored metropolis filled with inescapably surreal moments.

Miguel does reunite with his passed-on family members, in skeletal form no less, but refuses to take his great great-grandmother's blessing that can only be given by a relative and that will let him return to the land of the living. Why? Her stipulations for the blessing include never playing music again. Miguel won't have this, and sets out to look for Ernesto de la Cruz, who he thinks is the musician that abandoned his family three generations ago. He hopes that de la Cruz will be able to give him the proper blessing to return to the land of the living. 

Post-screening, as I was speaking to people who know more about the folklore depicted in "Coco" than I do, it seems that Unkrich's depiction of the "Land of the Dead" is exactly as Mexicans well-versed with the tales of the past would imagine it to look like. The colorful designs that come with the Día de los Muertos celebrations are on full glorious display in “Coco.” From the Ofrendas (altars of worship), to the brightly lit orange petals that separate the bridge between the living and the dead, all the way to the papal picados. This is a representation of Mexican traditions in as realistic and authentic a way as possible. Unkrich takes full advantage of the imagination that comes with this highly colorful holiday. Even the alebrijes, the brightly luminescent spirit animals, are there to help the dead in times of need.

Miguel is accompanied in his journey by Hector (Gael García Bernal), a street hoodlum who cannot cross over to the other side due to his family's memory of him slowly fading away and his picture not being on anyone's Ofrenda – that's what keeps the dead "alive." The placement of a picture on a shrine altar is enough to make them flourish in the land of the dead, but Hector has none of that. He’s being forgotten and might waste into the ether of nothingness if Miguel does not go back to the living and place Miguel's picture on an altar. Hector wants to cross over and he sees Miguel as his last true hop in doing so. Miguel accepts to help if Hector can bring him to de la Cruz, whom Hector claims is a good friend of his. The boy's Xoloitzcuintli sidekick dog, Dante, accompanies them and is much welcomed comedy relief. Dante's is supposedly Mexico’s oldest breed of dog, an ugly looking hairless type, with braindead eyes and a loose tongue that sticks out. This is no brainy dog, au contraire, Dante's goofy bewilderingly air-headed behavior is hilariously dead-on. 

The predictable meeting between Miguel and de la Cruz happens, but Unkrich makes sure to surprise you and lead you in a completely different direction, one that cause the film's final few scenes hit you in such a poignantly effective way. You are left with yet another Pixar film, which, cue the waterworks, brings a whole other dimension to what was seemingly a simple story of a boy trying to find his way back home.

The film is gorgeous, one of the most beautifully conceived and colorful Pixar joints to date, but gone is the originality of "Inside Out," or the Chaplin-esque poetry of "Ratatouille," or the ferocious pro-environment message of "WALL-E." Instead, "Coco" relies heavily on old-fashioned storytelling and its gloriously realized setting filled with fluorescent colors abound to tell its story, one with the universal message of never forgetting the memory of your elders. The elder here, and most important central figure to the story, is Miguel’s wrinkled, 97-year-old whose fading memory but deeply kept secrets lay down an emotional resonance for us near the tail end of the film.

It’s a testament to Pixar’s creative ingenuity that they have managed to make a film that tackles a subject matter as desolate as death in ways that children could breezily process through and adults could ponder in more thought-provoking ways. This is Pixar coming back, after the disappointments of "Cars 3," and "The Good Dinosaur," and reminding us that they are just in a league of their own when it comes to animation [B+]


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