The Critic’s Corner
December 4-10, 2017
By David Laprad
“Never underestimate the power of music,” says Ernesto de la Cruz in “Coco,” the new film from Pixar Studios, creators of “Toy Story,” “Cars” and other computer animated classics. “No one was going to hand me my future. It was up to me to reach for my dream, grab it tight and make it come true.”
Reading that, you might think “Coco” is an uplifting but trite modern fable about seizing the moment. It is inspiring – without being cliched – but it is also much, much more.
It’s about remembering and respecting your roots while allowing yourself to pursue your passions. It’s about the impact of your choices, both on yourself and others. And it’s about how other people add texture and meaning to our lives.
It’s about all of this and more, I’m sure. As I replay certain scenes in my head, the movie takes the shape of an onion, with many layers to peel back. Each one enriches my understanding and gives me new insights.
“Coco” stirs these deep thoughts while also being funny, entertaining, inventive and gorgeous. It is nothing less than Pixar at its narrative, technical and artistic best.
“Coco” tells the story of Miguel, a 12-year-old Mexican boy who’s growing up in a family of shoemakers. Four generations of his relatives live together in their humble compound, and every one of them expects Miguel will take hold of the family torch and carry it forward.
Miguel, however, has a different idea about what to do with his life. Instead of making footwear, he wants to play guitar and sing. Music is as much a part of who he is as the color of his eyes and the sound of his voice.
Unfortunately, his abuela will have none of it, as her father left her mother to be a musician and never returned. This broke her mother’s heart and consigned her to a life of sadness. It also left Miguel’s grandmother without a father. Ever since, music has been forbidden in the family’s household.
But Miguel is driven to pursue his passion – and he’s as resourceful as he is passionate. So, he sets out to borrow the guitar of his idol, the late de la Cruz, from his crypt and win a talent show.
During the heist, Miguel is transported to the Land of the Dead, where he meets the late members of his family, who are looking a little bare-boned in the afterlife. To return to the Land of the Living, Miguel must obtain their blessing. Alas, no one will give it to him unless he promises to squelch his musical aspirations and agrees to become a shoemaker. But still he persists in pursuing his dream.
From here, the story expands in unexpected and exciting ways. What surprised me about “Coco” is how it seemed to be written for adults as much as children. While the kids in the theater were laughing at the antics of the street dog that befriends Miguel, the film’s thematic underpinnings and the twists and turns in the plot held my attention.
The creators of “Coco” also came up with a few ways to give Miguel’s quest a sense of urgency. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn I’d spent the entire movie leaned forward in my seat.
The animation is just as captivating as the storytelling. With “Coco,” Pixar pushes the boundaries of computer animated films to new heights.
I remember watching “Monsters, Inc.” in 2001 and being awestruck by the animation of Sulley’s fur and the thrilling chase through the millions of doors in the storage vault of the factory. I thought then that I was seeing the most remarkable images Pixar could ever produce. Yet with each new film, the studio continued to surprise audiences with evermore amazing sights.
In “Coco,” the Land of the Dead looks like nothing seen before in a CGI film. But it’s not just the vast scope of the visuals or the photorealistic clarity of the imagery; it’s also the rich artistry that went into the creation of the environments and the souls who inhabit them.
There were moments when I wanted to press the pause button and soak up every beautifully conceived and rendered detail. The Land of the Dead looks like a fantastical version of a Mexican village, with thousands of brightly colored buildings peppering the skyline, while the transportation hub in which dead family members travel back to the Land of the Living has a colorful stained-glass ceiling that looks skeletal in nature. This reinforces the bony visual motif of the Land of the Dead.
My favorite image, however, is the candlelit cemetery in which Miguel finds de la Cruz’s crypt. As families tend to the plots of their loved ones, some play music quietly in the ethereal, golden glow. The scale of the image is both grand and intimate.
Other times, I laughed out loud at the slapstick humor involved in the character animation. The level of imagination and the execution of the ideas are extraordinary. (Watch for the selfie. It had me in stitches.)
Just as pleasing is the respect “Coco” has for the Mexican culture. While I’m no expert, I’ve been exposed to enough stereotypes to know the film contains none of them. Rather, it takes place in a world that’s alive with music, food and family and characters who are proud of their traditions and love life.
Every aspect of “Coco” is tuned to this frequency – including the music, which is vibrant and joyous. I bought the soundtrack on my iPhone as I sat in my seat enjoying the end credits music.
After dazzling viewers for 90 minutes, Pixar saved the best parts for last. While I loved the visuals and felt transported by the story, the emotional experience of the final ten minutes is the film’s crowning achievement. It hit me like a ton of bricks. It was as if every beautiful thing about “Coco” had been distilled into a single tear that drops from a character’s eye to wash our hearts.
Perhaps you’re thinking I’m a victim of schmaltz. No. Pixar earns the emotions that saturate the screen during the closing moments of “Coco.” How rare are the films that draw us in and touch us this way. Rarer still are the movies that make us examine ourselves and our lives.
Like I said, this thing has layers. Never underestimate the power of film.
Rating: See it now. Rated PG for thematic elements.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.