Walt Disney Studios
1 hour, 49 minutes
I don’t know if this was a problem in other families, but at our house, “Coco” was a bit of a controversy.
Sure, I know, the latest Pixar offering doesn’t offer most people any more trouble than deciding which showing you’re going to take the kids to and whether or not you need to buy tickets in advance. For us, though, there’s a little more to it. We are a Day of the Dead house. For one, my wife grew up in El Paso, Texas where Hispanic culture is preeminent. We’ve both always liked Halloween, and to be frank, Day of the Dead has a better aesthetic, so it’s a natural fit. To top it off, our daughter was born on November 2 – better known as Dia de los Muertos.
So, great – what’s the problem? An animated movie set in the actual Land of the Dead surrounding our family’s favorite holiday – perfect, right?
Except that they already made that movie. It was called “The Book of Life” and it came out in 2014. As soon as trailers for “Coco” started appearing, I could tell a fight was brewing. “How dare they just rip off ‘Book of Life?!’” “Are there no new ideas?!” “I’m not going!” And that was just from my wife. The kids were drawing battle lines as well and if it hadn’t been for pure necessity (my son’s 10th birthday party needed an activity) the Jenness family might well have skipped this movie altogether. What a loss that would have been.
“Coco” is one of the best films I’ve seen all year. And, not that it was an issue to anyone but us, it has virtually nothing in common with “Book of Life” other than calendar location. The story revolves around a young boy in Mexico named Miguel. Miguel is a typical 10-year old boy. He loves his family, he loves his dog, and he loves music.
It’s this last part that’s a sticking point. Miguel’s family, as it happens, has forsaken music of any kind, all due to an errant great, great grandfather who, long ago left the family to pursue the life of a musician. The boy is undeterred, however, but when he tries to steal his ancestor’s guitar on the night of Dia de los Muertos, he finds himself in violation of the laws of the Land of the Dead, where only the blessing of one particularly cranky long-dead matriarch will send him home.
For Miguel, and the audience that goes with him, the Day of the Dead becomes an amazing journey through a fascinating landscape populated by crazy characters and strange colorful creatures, peppered with just enough danger and mystery to make it the trip of a lifetime.
It’s hard to overstate how much I enjoyed this film. In true Pixar fashion, the artwork is lovely, the writing is strong, and the tone is a perfect mix of heart and humor that will satisfy every member of the family.
Where the animation studio often excels and even more so here is in the characters themselves. Many are funny, even silly, but they are real, too, even realer than in most “real” movies.
Miguel, voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez, is the perfect conduit for this story, and doesn’t get overshadowed by the more experienced actors in the production.
One of the aspects of this film that really gives it an authentic feel is that the filmmakers wisely chose to cast this Hispanic story with Hispanic actors (shocker, I know). Gael Gabriel Bernal, Edward James Olmos, Benjamin Bratt, and the great Alfonso Arau, who you may remember as El Guapo in “The Three Amigos,” but probably didn’t know was the director of “Like Water for Chocolate” and “A Walk in the Clouds,” all make appearances, as do actual characters from Mexico’s rich history, such as Frida Kahlo in a hilarious cameo. Everything about “Coco” feels sensitive – not politically correct, but aware of the culture it is depicting, and like almost everything Pixar puts out, the affection the artists feel for their subject comes through in spades.
There is a major misstep in this film, but it’s not a problem with “Coco,” but rather with the cartoon that opens the film. Like post-credit stingers with Marvel films, Pixar has become known for the opening cartoon, usually a nearly wordless art piece depicting one or another beautiful moment or concept. The last one I saw was “Piper,” the story of a baby shorebird trying to get a clam. Occasionally they’ll do a character based one – I think there’re a couple of “Toy Story” shorts and one from “The Incredibles,” but usually they’re disconnected to anything else Pixar has done.
This time, however, we are treated to a nearly fifteen minute “Frozen” adventure which sees Olaf searching for a Christmas tradition to give to the Queen and her sister. So much about this doesn’t work that it’s hard to know where to start. For one, the songs are terrible. These sound like the first drafts of the most mediocre of “Frozen’s” playlist. And there’s so many of them. I bet there are four different songs. There’s only four or five songs in a normal length movie, so why they felt the need to pack them in here is a mystery to me.
A bigger problem, however, is the entire plot structure. The idea is that, because of the events of the first film, Elsa and Anna have no Christmas traditions and Olaf is going to explore a bunch of different ones in order to find one for the girls to adopt. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that this isn’t the way traditions work and that the plot is about as subtle as a third-rate, straight-to-video holiday special, but the idea of exploring Anna and Elsa’s childhood is a big mistake. The original movie cleverly glosses over all this in one, well-written song. Therefore, you’re not asked to actually confront the fact that these are two children who spent over a decade with absolutely no contact with other children, or any other people besides their parents. Not even each other.
If you spend too much time thinking about that, it can seriously mess you up. This short dives in to that childhood feet first and the happy conclusion where the two girls realize that Olaf is their tradition just makes it sadder. The “Frozen” short is not good, but it may have the effect of making “Coco” even better because you’re starved by the time the feature begins. I just hope this doesn’t have the unintended effect of dampening enthusiasm for the eventual “Frozen” sequel.
“Coco,” on the other hand, they can keep making for as long as they want. Grade: A+
“Coco” is rated PG for very mild rude humor and scenes dealing with death and aging.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.