Dazzling 'Coco' a feast for adults
Published 5:25 pm, Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Surprises are so much harder to find in cinema, with previews and social media and marketing demands — and a willingness to break down elements of a film that no one has seen.
The recent "Thor: Ragnorak" movie was built around a surprise appearance by the Hulk, which was spoiled dozens of times per day before the film was released — on every other TV commercial, movie poster, toy aisle and bus shelter in existence.
So what a joy to watch "Coco," filmmaking that actively sandbags the viewer, with the emotions of an artist and the mind of a pool hustler. Pixar's new Dia de los Muertos-themed animated movie crams the first sequences with exposition, and then takes a colorful yet light spin through the land of the dead. But everything is leading up to a powerhouse finish.
The success of this final act, and the way it transforms the entire film, is remarkable. It's less a twist than a series of puzzle pieces coming together, each one designed by director Lee Unkrich and the story team to make you feel a little more. The end credits sequence becomes a necessary respite. There you sit, composing yourself from an ugly end-of-movie crying jag, wondering what hit you ...
"Coco" doesn't always seem headed in that direction. Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is the 12-year-old son of Mexican shoemakers who refuse to let him play music, a set-up that feels like "Ratatouille," with dead music star Ernesto de la Cruz as a spirit guide instead of a dead chef Auguste Gusteau. The beginning includes such a breezy onslaught of history and new characters and context, the writers finally make a joke about how much information they just threw at you.
At first, Miguel's arrival in the skeleton-filled realm of the dead seems to confirm that this is just a good movie, not a great one. A goofball character is introduced — bumbling grifter Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) — in a film that already met its goofball character quota when it introduced Dante the street dog.
★★★★ Movie review
Rated: PG for thematic elements
Running time: 109 minutes
But as Unkrich showed in "Toy Story 3," the filmmaker is prone to sudden detours into dark places, expanding his artistic playing field, while trusting that the risks will lead to reward. Miguel's mostly consequence-free adventures develop real stakes, and the traditions of the Day of the Dead develop weight and meaning. (Cool added benefit of this movie, and Raina Telgemeier's 2016 best-selling graphic novel "Ghosts": Idiot adults who think Latino community Dia de los Muertos celebrations are simply an excuse to drink to excess should fall into a shame spiral that lasts until at least 2027.)
The film also fulfills a promise that Pixar's artists have repeatedly made, that hasn't necessarily been conveyed in the sunny advertising for "Coco": These movies are being conceived to amuse and move adults, not children. That's great news or a warning, depending on your cinematic entourage; as much as the 45-year-olds were turning into puddles of exposed emotions, there were scared 3-year-olds at my screening who had a steady eye for the exit.
"Coco" is the best-looking Pixar movie since the tonally uneven "The Good Dinosaur." The colorful afterlife is the centerpiece, but excellence is found in unexpected places. Miguel's animated fingers are actually playing the correct notes on his guitar. You'll note the knockoff Buzz Lightyear and Woody pinatas in the background of a marketplace scene, and wonder why an animated film has never won a production design Academy Award.
But the greatest impact is in the written word. Look at the scene with Hector's lonely friend Chicharron, voiced by Edward James Olmos, who exists on borrowed time. What seems like another comic detour turns into a lesson in savoring every moment, then knowing when to let go.
The effect of this scene, and the ones that follow, is like taking a slow climb up a roller coaster track, before you start whipping around random corners and through pitch black tunnels.
Except imagine all of the above happening without realizing you're on the ride, until you've started barreling down that first hill.
This is the element of surprise that makes Pixar Pixar.