Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Warm 'Coco'

The family resemblance is striking!

It's a rare Pixar movie that doesn't cause me to burst into tears at least once during its running time, so there was no doubt that Coco, the studio's latest, which is primarily set in Mexico's folkloric Land of the Dead, and deals with familial loss and memory, was going to require me to make use of a handkerchief at some point. (Turns out, I'd need two.)

Coco is centered on 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a music-loving kid who happens to be from the "only music-hating family in Mexico." Way back when, Miguel's great-great-grandfather left his wife Imelda and young daughter Coco to pursue his musical dreams, and was never heard from again. As a result, the family eschewed music entirely, banning both its playing and enjoyment, instead turning to shoe-making, a skill passed down for three generation.

But Miguel can't resist the draw of music, which he knows is in his blood. He builds his own guitar in a hidden clubhouse complete with an altar dedicated to his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the most famous musician in Mexico's history. His conflict with his family comes to a boiling point on Día de Muertos, as the family prepares for the yearly celebration that honors their deceased ancestors, with Miguel running away and magically finding himself in the Land of the Dead.

A living boy is about as shocking a sight in the Land of the Dead as a walking skeleton would be in the Land of the Living, but luckily Miguel is able to track down his ancestors, including great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach), who is being denied entry into the land of the living's Día de Muertos festivities for the first time since her death.

Coco's utilization of the traditions and folklore surrounding Día de Muertos is both clever and heartfelt. In order for the dead to return to Earth, someone on Earth must still be around who remembers them. The "proof" of this is a family's use of photos in their ofrendas, or altars. Imelda's photo is missing from Miguel's family's ofrenda, because Miguel has taken it. It's also the only existing photo of his great-great-grandfather (albeit not a complete one, as his face was torn out in anger, and has been missing ever since).

The Land of the Dead is one of Pixar's most enchanting worlds, unabashedly ethnic, filled with details you'll never be able to catch in a single viewing. Like the Mexican folklore that inspired it, it is vibrantly colored, walking the line between slightly morbid, and comically cute. Though the film is filled with walking and talking skeletons, they're never scary (the little ones should be fine), and their bony bodies are used to excellent comedic effect.

If I have any complaint with Coco, it's that it's a story Pixar has told many times before, centered on a lost character desperately trying to make it back home to family. With the addition of Miguel's daddy (or great-great-granddaddy) issues, Coco fits a little too comfortably into the Pixar formula.

But they can get away with these redundancies because the way they tell these familiar stories is consistently unique from film to film, and despite the formula, the emotional center of the stories never feels false.

In Coco, Miguel teams up with a raggedy skeleton named Hector (Gael García Bernal, in a performance that is both funny and heartbreaking), who is desperate to visit his family, but must remain in the Land of the Dead because there's seemingly no one left on earth who remembers him; once someone is forgotten, they cease to exist completely. That's the deep-seated melancholy at the center of Coco. The one commonality we all share as humans is our mortality, and it's a fact few truly like to face. But Coco gives us a warm vision of immortality, and its something every one of us has the power to conjure, every time we look through an old family album...


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