Once the new Pixar film reaches the land of the dead, it comes fully to life
COCO (Lee Unkrich). 105 minutes. Opens Wednesday (November 22). See listing. Rating: NNNN
Coco may get off to an uneven start, but once it gets rolling it’s a carnival of wonders – a gorgeous, weird comedy filled with vivid imagery, eccentric characters and a marvellous payoff.
The movie opens in a little Mexican town, where young Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of being a world-famous singer despite his family’s generations-old ban on music of any kind – a ban enforced by his grandmother with extreme prejudice. Miguel’s family makes shoes they do not play guitar or sing. It’s just the way it is.
But you know how Disney movies are: rules are made to be broken, and dreams are meant to be chased. And so, on the Day Of The Dead, Miguel winds up venturing into the underworld to seek the blessing of Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the greatest musician Mexico has ever known.
In the first act, director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and co-director Adrian Molina lay out the themes of family, obligation and understanding a little too heavily. And the character designs are strangely off-putting, with Miguel’s older relatives seeming somehow too detailed while Miguel looks almost shiny-smooth. I think someone made a conscious choice to make the world of the living seem more tactile and textured than the land of the dead, but it doesn’t sit right.
Fortunately, most of Coco doesn’t take place among the living. As soon as soon as Miguel reaches the land of the dead, the film comes fully to life, revealing a complex and engaging quest narrative, a surprisingly moving performance from Gael García Bernal as a hapless spirit named Héctor and a couple of really sharp Frida Kahlo jokes.
And I mentioned the visuals, right? They’re glorious, with Pixar reaching beyond its usual toolbox to render a vivid, iridescent cityscape in bright greens and blues, populated by skeletal spirits and impossible animals. Those characters are wonderful, and their simple design more than makes up for the jarring look of the living. And Dante, the street dog who becomes Miguel’s enthusiastic spirit guide, is a constant delight.
The movie’s so enthralling that you won’t even notice the emotional currents building steadily and powerfully underneath – until it wallops you with them, of course.
That’s always been Pixar’s greatest strength: for all of the momentum its movies create, and for all the bright, busy stories they tell, the films play on our feelings elegantly, gracefully.
Almost musically, you might say.