Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Coco: A tasty treat

Coco (2017) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.22.17

This one’s deceptive.

At first blush, Pixar’s Coco feels like the saga of a little boy who desperately wants to embrace melody and song, but is thwarted by parents and relatives with a deeply rooted aversion to music.

As his faithful dog Dante watches attentively, Miguel prepares to receive a blessing from
his long-deceased Mamá Imelda: a necessary ritual, lest the boy be forced to remain
forever in the Land of the Dead. Alas, the blessing will come with strings attached...
That’s accurate enough, but merely the entry point to this wildly imaginative, gloriously colorful and unexpectedly poignant saga of family bonds. Co-directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina — who also co-scripted the story, alongside Jason Katz and Matthew Aldrich — have ingeniously employed Mexico’s annual Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration to illustrate the importance of honoring — and remembering — past generations.

The narrative takes place during a single fast-paced day and night, and is laden with gentle messages that range from To Thine Own Self Be True, to There’s No Place Like Home.

In the tradition of Pixar’s best films, the tone veers between droll comedy and heartbreaking pathos, and from larkish excitement to edge-of-the-seat suspense. At the same time, we’re dazzled by the animated equivalent of phenomenal production design, and charmed by some cleverly integrated songs, including an endearing ballad written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the Academy Award-winning team behind the power anthem “Let It Go,” from Frozen.

The rather complex narrative defies an elevator pitch, and opens with a prologue that cleverly establishes back-story via Día de los Muertos paper-cut flags. We then meet 12-year-old Miguel (voiced with earnest sincerity by young Anthony Gonzalez), who chafes at the limitations imposed by a jovial clan of shoemakers.

This family business has become the pride of Santa Cecilia: a calling that began with Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Mamá Imelda, as a means of survival when her husband abandoned the family — including toddler daughter Coco — in order to follow his dream of becoming a famous musician. Mamá Imelda’s subsequent ban on music has been enforced strictly by subsequent generations, much to Miguel’s dismay.

He dreams of growing up to be a celebrated musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz, who became the most famous musician in Mexican history: conquering pop charts, movies and concert stages.

But thanks to the disciplinarian edicts of his grandmother Abuelita (Renée Victor), the frustrated Miguel believes that he’s backed into an either/or corner: He must choose between his passion for music, and his love for his family. Efforts at persuasion merely harden Abuelita’s position, and so Miguel — having accidentally stumbled upon a family secret — yields to an ill-advised impulse, as night falls on Día de los Muertos.

It’s the one night when everybody’s ancestors can leave the “Land of the Dead,” in order to clandestinely visit with their living descendants ... but only — and this is crucial — if they’ve been remembered with a photograph carefully placed within the elaborate family ofrenda that includes flowers, favorite foods and cherished knickknacks.

Miguel’s rash act prompts a magical retaliation that renders him visible to the skeletal visitors who’ve come to Santa Cecilia, and most particularly to his own ancestors. Dismayed by what the boy has done, they bring him back across the glowing arch of flower petals to their realm, where Miguel learns that he only has until sunrise to break the spell, lest he become a permanent resident ... which is to say, a skeletal remnant of his former self.

Fixing this problem seems simple enough; Miguel needs only a blessing from any one of his ancestors. Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) is happy enough to provide such a prayer ... with the stipulation that Miguel renounce any interest in music.

Unwilling to make such a sacrifice, Miguel reasons that he’d have better luck obtaining a blessing from his great-great-grandfather, long estranged from the family, but obviously to be found somewhere within the Land of the Dead. With the clock ticking — and questionable assistance from Héctor (Gael García Bernal), a charming, fast-talking trickster who claims to have connections within his realm — Miguel sets off on this unlikely quest.

Oh, yes: Miguel also is accompanied by Dante, a hairless, slightly emaciated street dog — a Xolo dog, short for Xoloitzcuintli (and the national dog of Mexico) — which comes close to stealing the entire film. I’ve not seen a dog animated with such hilariously accurate canine precision since 1950, when Chuck Jones introduced “Frisky Puppy” to the Warner Bros. cartoon pantheon, as a foil for the fussy and fastidious Claude Cat.

Dante clearly qualifies as one of the “flawed dogs” made famous by Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed. Loyal though he is, poor, clumsy Dante has no impulse control, and a lengthy tongue that he can’t begin to keep within his mouth. All dog owners will die laughing; this pooch is priceless.

Héctor is far more complex than he appears at first blush, when he’s little more than a street hustler with a talent for arch one-liners. But Héctor has his own poignant back-story, and — much like Miguel — he “evolves” as the story progresses, shedding a brittle exterior and revealing a deeply sensitive side.

In a mildly ironic twist, the title character — great-grandmother Mamá Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) — is little more than a sidebar fixture: Miguel’s ancient, fragile and silent confidante, with whom he shares all the details of his daily adventures. Whether she comprehends any of this is anybody’s guess; her wrinkled features rarely move. But her presence eventually proves vital, once we reach a third act laden with cunning plot twists.

The bulk of dramatic gravitas remains with Miguel, who learns much (as do we) during the course of this richly detailed story. This is a coming-of-age saga in a most unusual setting, but the core truths remain familiar: the folly of hasty assumptions, the wisdom of making informed choices, and the importance of following one’s heart.

Such serious stuff aside, Unkrich and Molina unleash an endless volley of unhinged skeleton sight gags, which never grow tiresome. All are edited with the snap of perfect comic timing, which has been a hallmark of Pixar features ever since 1995’s Toy Story. Slow takes are equally well edited, the directors achieving a wealth of emotion from the skeletal expressions of various characters.

The film’s core look also is clever. Santa Cecilia is depicted in soft earth tones, as a pastoral, low-lying (horizontal) community that reserves its minimal bits of opulence for the local cemetery and the various family ofrendas. The Land of the Dead, in great contrast, is a dazzling display of vibrant, day-glo colors: lavish costumes, vertical towers and an atmosphere of ongoing celebration. (When this film hits home video, it’ll be a stop-frame delight for those wishing to savor every little detail.)

In its own way, the Land of the Dead is a happy place ... albeit one with a few unexpectedly harsh limitations.

Pixar films go through years of pre-production, so this one’s arrival at such a politically tempestuous moment is sheer coincidence. That said, it’s a well-timed celebration of Mexico’s rich culture and heritage, and a reminder that the important things — family, legacy, respect and honor — are universal.

Much like a piñata, Coco’s enchanting, brightly colored surface is laden with all manner of wise and heartwarming contents. It’s quite a treasure.

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