REVIEW: Coco Sneaks Up on You

Pixar’s less heralded but most remarkable skill is its ability to introduce ideas and concepts one would be hard-pressed to consider appropriate for a family movie: Mental health comes from managing our emotions, not denying them (Inside Out); the value of criticism lies in the discovery of new talent (Ratatouille); overprotection can stunt a child’s growth (Finding Nemo).

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Coco -it’s visually stunning and it’s undeniably fun- but the message (“families are important and want the best for us”) is pedestrian at best and debatable under certain circumstances. Not that the value of family was ever a novel idea, but the Fast and Furious saga has driven the notion into the ground.

Coco is set during the Day of the Dead in Mexico, the one time of the year those who have passed can come for a visit. At the Rivera household, the fiesta is celebrated without music. A few generations ago, the paterfamilias left his wife and baby daughter to pursued a career in music and never returned. It was decided then the family would make a living making shoes and no tunes will ever be played at home, or surrounding areas.

Years later, Miguel (newcomer Anthony González) -the youngest member of the family- has grown disgruntled with the family tradition. The kid is a self-taught guitar prodigy and wants to go pro, especially after discovering his great-grandfather wasn’t a deadbeat but celebrated singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Following a fierce argument with his family, Miguel becomes stuck in the Land of the Dead. He must convince his dead relatives -who also have abjured music- to give him their blessing or spend eternity as a skeleton.

These are just the basic story points. Coco is very plot heavy. It’s not hard to follow, but there are a lot of rules to keep track of. The filmmakers’ respect for Mexican culture is laudable, if at expense of narrative economy. As in any good Pixar movie, comedy is both gentle and effective. Miguel is very likeable, as is his traveling companion, an unruly mutt called Dante (this is a Disney movie, people. Pets are mandatory).

Most of Coco’s virtues are visual. The separation between the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead is gorgeous and elegant (it involves daunting amounts of marigold petals). The attention to detail is impressive, from stunning, impossible creatures called alebrijes to grandma’s loose skin jiggling. Coco is the kind of movie that rewards multiple viewings.

A couple of paragraphs ago I complained about the uninspired message beneath it all. As cliché as the whole ‘family’ business sounds, the conclusion is one of the finest tearjerkers ever concocted by Pixar. Coco forces you to remember the loved ones who have departed in such lovely fashion, it’s guaranteed waterworks.

Coco may be run-of-the-mill Pixar, but any movie that sticks it to certain notorious anti-Mexican deserves my respect.

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure: As is traditional with any animated Disney feature, Coco comes with a short film. This one has a higher profile than the lovely Paperman and The Blue Umbrella: Olaf’s Frozen Adventure is a 21-minute ditty set to pamper Frozen fans until the sequel scheduled for 2019 arrives. Everybody’s favorite snowman (outside Michael Fassbender) goes on a quest for Christmas traditions, given that Anna and Elsa don’t have any. Mild amusement and forced sentimentality ensues.

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure feels like an excuse to cram four more tunes into the Frozen songbook, none of them nearly as good as the original ones. The use of Christmas themes is a bit in-your-face and Olaf may be a good comic relief (I guess), but can’t carry a storyline, let alone the entire short film. I’m sure my review will have an impact among my plethora of readers under ten.

Coco: Three prairie dogs. Olaf: Two prairie dogs. Coco is now playing, everywhere.

Author: Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Journalist, film critic, documentary filmmaker, and sometimes nice guy. Member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Like horror flicks, long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners. Allergic to cats.

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