Saturday Features

Round trip to the afterlife

  • Pixar’s new Coco, directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, is an exuberant, colourful and often moving exploration of the culture and mythologies of a part of the world that we don’t much get to see in mainstream Hollywood features
- OBIE SHRESTHA
Coco never comes closer to greatness than when it’s going all out on the visuals: It’s difficult to find the words to describe the sort of crazy, vibrant, electric stuff they put up on screen, making it totally worth splashing out on the 3D for

Dec 2, 2017-Young Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) would like nothing more than to be able to make music and play to adoring crowds, much as his idol, the late Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), had done in his heyday—before dropping dead in a tragic prop-related accident. Miguel has all of Cruz’s films and songs on tape and he watches these obsessively, to the point where he’s taught himself to play the guitar.

Unfortunately, he’s had to do all this in secret: Miguel’s grandmother (Renée Victor) has strictly forbidden music from their homestead in the village of Santa Cecilia; let alone singing or playing an instrument—she won’t so much as allow Miguel to blow a little stray tune on an empty bottle. 

Why the hate, you ask? Well, it had all started when Miguel’s great-great-grandfather had walked out on his wife and child to pursue his dreams as a musician. Miguel doesn’t know who he was—his great-great-grandmother and subsequent generations of the family had disowned the man completely, refusing to speak his name and even slashing his face out of all existing photos. The ban on music, then, had been an extension of this, a blanket bid to wipe out all traces of the selfish monster who had turned his back on family. 

Miguel, of course, doesn’t think it’s fair for Abuelita and the others to expect him to stop doing what he loves just because of a bad choice someone made a long time ago. And as celebrations begin in the village for Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead—a time to remember and commemorate one’s ancestors—he decides it’s time to put his foot down. But that decision leads him into an unexpected whirlwind adventure in the realm of spirits, where he comes face to face, quite literally, with the many skeletons in his family’s closet. 

The rare exception aside, Pixar features have been rather disappointing of late, notably since the studio was acquired by Disney. Indeed, there’s been a visible leaning towards unnecessary sequels of once-popular properties, mining these to the point of complete creative—but apparently not commercial—exhaustion.

So it’s actually surprising to hear of Pixar bringing out an entirely new film, particularly one that is so out-of-the-mould—in some respects, at least—as Coco, directed by studio veteran Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. Based entirely in Mexico, Coco is an exuberant, colourful and often moving exploration of the culture and mythologies of a part of the world that we either don’t get to see in mainstream Hollywood features, including animated films, or that suffers severely caricaturised representations where it does occur. While I can’t say it reaches the standards set by some of the studio’s best work in the past, it certainly comes close. 

And Coco never comes closer to greatness than when it’s going all out on the visuals: It’s difficult, really, to find the words to describe the sort of crazy, vibrant, practically electric stuff they put up on screen here.

The Land of the Dead is particularly breathtaking, and probably worth, on its own, splashing out on the 3D version for. And there are other little details that will blow you away—one sequence at the beginning of the film, done entirely in the delicate papelpicado style, is among the most imaginative of the lot, and feels very much in sync with the film’s setting.

There are also a number of psychedelic-tinted animal spirits, or “alebrijes” as they’re called, swooping around everywhere, and though they do seem a bit arbitrary in terms of fitting into the story—functioning as little more than a convenient deus ex machina—I’ll admit they are pretty darned cool to look at. 

I can’t, of course, vouch for the authenticity of the social and cultural detailing that’s been achieved here—a Latino viewer might feel completely different about how the place and its people have been depicted—and this being Pixar, a certain degree of over-simplification is to be expected.

But one can sense a great affection and reverence for Mexican traditions and ethnic folklore in Coco—while it’s not entirely divested of exotifying stereotypes, it does seem to want to, for the most part, normalise Mexican culture and way of life rather than treat it as something foreign, and has genuine respect for the complexities therein.

 

This, the casual interjections of unsubtitled Spanish throughout, and the fact that this is the first Pixar film to star a Latino character, is heartening at a time when the US administration is peddling such a toxic rhetoric on immigration, oftentimes specifically demonising Mexicans.

Coco isn’t political, per se, but one can’t help but feel the undertones; it’s really telling of the kind of climate we live in when a positive, inclusive children’s film can feel like a political act.

All that is well and good, if only the actual story had been touch better. The film is fun and can be very funny in parts, but although setting off with a whimsical bang and despite being populated with such wonderful contextual details, the script eventually succumbs to the same formulaic arc that has come to define animation targeted to the young.

The going is a bit slow in the middle as these predictable elements come in, and things start to get a bit too twee and saccharine for comfort for the adult viewer, particularly towards the end when Coco gives over to open emotional manipulation and is essentially just begging you to shed a tear. Also disappointing is the soundtrack—for a story where music occupies such a key role, the songs are blandly serviceable, not a single stand-out among them.

So Coco might not leap to the top of your list of animated faves anytime soon, and in spite of the newness of the setting, the film still plays it quite safe when it comes to the broad beats of the story. But it’s at least a sign of better, more expansive things to come from Pixar, and from Hollywood animation in general. 

Published: 02-12-2017 08:31

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