The sweet, sweet breath of life.
By Louis Balzani
Posted 8:26 pm on Dec 2, 2017
WATCH THIS IF:
- You’re a fan of Pixar’s original stories.
- You have an appreciation for traditional Mexican culture.
- You like a little singing and dancing sprinkled into your animated fare.
There’s no cinematic treat like a top-shelf Pixar production. For decades, the animation studio has crafted masterpieces around the most unlikely heroes, like a MasterChef rat or anthropomorphized emotions. The best of these films use these crazy ideas to probe the human experience in thoughtful ways, making them approachable for viewers of all ages. The studio’s latest effort, Coco, begins with a much more grounded idea, but this soon gives way to the fantastical and touching storytelling we all love to see Pixar produce.
Miguel, the youngest in a long line of humble shoemakers, finds himself at a crossroads. He has little interest in his family’s work or traditions, and he spends time privately nursing a love for music that his family finds unacceptable. On Dia de los Muertos, the time of year when the deceased return to the land of the living, Miguel suddenly finds himself among them and travels into the land of the dead. As he explores this new world and sets out on new missions of his own, a grand adventure naturally unfolds, and he learns a few important lessons along the way.In exploring the intricacies of the land of the dead, Coco begins to work its magic. The film handles the festival’s rich cultural history with respect, and it injects some wild creativity into the premise. The land of the dead is not some gloomy purgatory, but rather a bustling and vibrant city with towers stretching skyward. Here, those who have passed on from the living world continue to exist and thrive as long as those who are still living remember them; it is only when no one in the living world remembers you that you truly die.
Like the best films in Pixar’s catalog, Coco isn’t afraid to explore deeper themes and how they relate to the central characters. It would be easy for a film that revolves around death and morality to bury its tone under those ideas, but Coco deftly handles its themes with just the right amount of seriousness. In fact, some of the narrative beats end up eclipsing the setting in bleakness; the inevitable turn-for-the-worse brings some surprisingly dark developments to bear, and the story isn’t afraid to embrace these moments. There are nitpicks in the narrative, however; in what is perhaps the film’s only noteworthy slip-up, many of the moments related to the eventual antagonist don’t resonate as strongly as you might hope.
To switch gears for a moment, Coco is easily Pixar’s most visually striking film yet. In particular, the incredible lighting and fantastic overall art design elevates the film to new heights. The level of detail on display is, in a word, stunning; watch with awe as individual leaves dance under Miguel’s first steps on the bridge connecting the dead to the living. The land of the dead itself is a sight to behold, awash in light and color with background intricacies so plentiful it’s impossible to absorb it all on the first go. Even the obligatory main-characters-fall-into-despair-in-a-dark-place scene is bathed in brightness this time around.This aspect is a bit more subtle, but the film’s liberal use of depth-of-field may well be the best use of this technique in any animated film. There’s a shot early on where Miguel plays guitar in secret; the “camera” pulls focus across the guitar as he plays, and quite frankly it’s a jaw-dropping effect. Do a little internet research, and you’ll learn that these visuals took an overwhelming amount of technical work and innovation, which has clearly paid off in spades.
Of course, all of this tech wizardry is ultimately in service of the story, not in place of it, and it provides a beautiful canvas onto the film’s primary message is painted. Just as Dia de los Muertos is all about the family we’ve lost, Coco is about using their memory to deepen our feelings toward the living. No, families may not always understand or support you, but those ties that bind are more important than anything else. The most emotional moments in the film serve as very poignant reminders of this; if you had close relationships with family members who are dying or no longer alive, you might want to do a tissue check before sitting down for this one.
At its core, Coco is classic Pixar: an emotionally complete story with a creative twist and visual splendor to spare. Its authentic and reverential take on Mexican culture helps separate it from the rest of the studio’s work, and it’s a joy to behold from the moment it begins. Coco is preceded in theaters by Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, a 21-minute Frozen “short” that thoroughly overstays its welcome. Survive that, though, and you’ll be rewarded with one of Pixar’s best original stories this decade.