Sunday, 31 December 2017

Coco (2017) - Movie Review
The plot: Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) wants to become a famous musician like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), something made difficult by how Miguel’s family have expressly forbidden any of them getting involved in music. However, when Miguel finds himself in the Land Of The Dead on the night of Dia de los Muertos, his struggle between his dreams and his family is about to get even more complicated as he discovers that he and Ernesto might have a lot more in common than he first thought.

Gonzalez is fantastic as our lead, rounding off a year full of excellent child actors with a surprisingly deft touch in terms of emotional delivery, not to mention blowing the house down any time he gets a chance to sing. Bratt as the famous Ernesto de la Cruz nails the charisma at the heart of the character, and as his character gets more fleshed out, he handles the transition with remarkable smoothness; major props to Antonio Sol as Ernesto’s singing voice as well. Gael García Bernal is quite endearing as the rather affable Héctor, showing great chemistry alongside Gonzalez and delivering some extremely hard-hitting emotional resonance when he is called upon to do so.
Alanna Ubach as Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Imelda starts out well enough as the rather standoffish head of the family in the afterlife, but as the story unfolds further and her character opens up a bit, she goes from confronting to utterly disarming so quickly it’ll make your head spin. Renée Victor as Miguel’s grandmother is rather endearing in just how brazen she is, which combined with her… interesting walking animation results in what is weirdly one of the more memorable characters here; for a film this chock-full of solid performances, that’s quite an accomplishment.
Edward James Olmos is very good in his bit part that shows the danger of the setting, Gabriel Iglesias as the head clerk of the Land Of The Dead/Land Of The Living immigration office and… hang on… look back at all these names. This is a Hollywood production, heavily rooted in Mexican culture, with an entirely Latin cast. Finally, after all my bitching about representation in film, and this is already off to a solid start by actually showing some sense in that regard.

When the trailer for The Incredibles 2 came out earlier this year, there was a lot of commotion about just how good it look due to the smaller details. Never before have I seen people so interested in stray bits of fabric hanging off of someone’s shirt. After watching this film, have to admit, I’m joining in in that hype because this is absolutely stunning in its visuals. It keeps to the Pixar standard as far as animation quality, building on their increasing understanding of how to animate human beings to great effect, and the creativity on display when we get to the Land Of The Dead is incredibly vibrant. Anything and everything positive I had to say about The Book Of Life’s visual chops can be applied here a thousand times over, from the excellently-animated skeletons to the very inviting colour palette that makes the afterlife look like the greatest party in existence. 
However, as good as all that is, none of that is what ended up impressing me. Instead, that comes down to the film’s use of light and shadow. This is one of the trickier things to get right as far as CGI animation, as being able to replicate how light actually reflects off and wraps around solid objects is something that even Pixar themselves have struggled with in the past. Here, though? This has to be some of the best lighting I’ve seen in any animated film and combined with the realistic but bouncy character designs, it allows for a lot of amazingly good frames and set pieces.

Then there’s the music, where once again this film manages to transcend its studio’s already-lofty reputation. I’ll admit to having something of a major weakness for Spanish guitars and the Spanish language in song, and sure enough composer Michael Giacchino delivers as always with a certain learned simplicity that makes everything pop, but that doesn’t really go to explain just how great this soundtrack is. Aesthetically, it all works out due to the efforts of Giacchino and the vocal cast, but there’s also the context in which it is used. As silly as the initial conceit is, with Miguel’s family forbidding music out of a fear that it cursed them, the way the script plays around with what music does for the human soul leads to some rather enthralling moments. Cultural context is kept at the core of every moment of song and melody we get here, given a rather mystical air in how it is depicted as a way of passing down tradition, stories and even memories.

Which brings us to the story. It is at this point that I should mention that this film is co-directed, co-written and co-edited by Lee Unkrich, a long-term member of Pixar’s creative team and the man who gave us Toy Story 3. That prior experience with sheer soul-crushing emotion should give you an idea of how this film feels as more and more of the story is made clear. Building on the rather bizarre relationship Pixar and Disney in general seems to have with parental figures (namely, the running joke of how at least one of the main character’s parents has to be dead before Disney will even touch it), the story looks at how the traditions and stories we pass down through the generations are a means to keep that person’s memory alive.
As the plot twists and turns and we get a clearer idea of just how much family means to Miguel and his family, it goes from a tried-and-true “follow your dreams” message into one about how important it is that the memories and stories of the dearly departed are worth being kept. Connection with one’s family can comprise of a lot of a person’s understanding of the world; disconnection, even more so. What makes all of this quite brilliant in its execution is that it never comes across like it’s nagging the audience to respect their elders. Instead, it launches a two-pronged attack on the heart and the head to show why some traditions are worth being kept. Considering some of the subtext involving Mexican immigration, and some very real fears of cultural erasure being voiced of late, this is where an ideal message meets ideal execution.

All in all, Pixar once again delivers with a quite incredible offering. The voice acting is great across the board, be it dramatic or melodic, the animation shows that Pixar is still trying to push itself to improve on its own pedigree, the music is lively and strums the heartstrings like so many gently-plucked guitars, and the writing combines the kind of emotional intensity I’ve come to expect from Lee Unkrich with an overflowing amount of respect for Mexican culture to create a story about the importance of family that might rival some of Disney/Pixar’s best efforts along similar lines.

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