Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Film Review: The stunning tapestries of Coco form another runaway Pixar success

Pixar have tackled grown up themes before. Wall-E looks at environmentalism and consumerism, Inside Out tackles mental health and the control we have over our emotions, even lower tier Pixar like Monsters University and Brave look at the importance of family, friendship and self acceptance. The studio's latest original film - and their last before a two year spread of sequels - is Coco, which doesn't just further Pixar's tackling of adult themes but rather completes it. Lee Unkrich's film is an analysis of culture and tradition, and a look into the meaning of both life and death. It sounds like heavy going, but Coco pulls it all off exactly how you'd expect: in joyously imaginative, richly textured and ridiculously emotional ways.

Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) wants to be a musician. He lives and breathes music, inspired by his town's iconic musical success story of Ernesto de la Cruz. There's just one problem, though: Miguel's family hate and have banished music after his great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife Imelda and daughter Coco (Miguel's great-grandmother) in order to pursue his career. Inspired by a sudden discovery on the Day of the Dead, Miguel steals Ernesto's guitar - which is on display in the town - to play a talent competition, only to strum a single chord and find himself transported to the Land of the Dead.

Coco's script, penned by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, instantly works on a number of levels. Miguel is so immediately likeable, thanks also to Gonzalez' infectious vocal performance, that we root for him from just the film's opening scene. Coco is bizarrely paced throughout its first act, but this choppy rhythm soon coalesces into something much smoother and more inviting once Miguel enters the Land of the Dead. Coco has a lot of ground rules to lay out early on, as well as establishing the entirety of Miguel's family tree so we can actually understand what we're watching, and so this uneven pacing in the former half comes as kind of a necessary burden. You probably won't feel immediately hooked by the film, but you'll have faith that it knows what it's doing.

Once Coco starts moving its plot forward the dramatic stakes becomes immediately clear, and while the idea of Miguel having to find a way back to the Land of the Living before sunrise feels contrived on paper the film succeeds in fleshing it out through world building. Despite the morbid title, the Land of the Dead is a stunning place to be - from the glowing golden leaves that path Miguel's way into the world to the simply jaw dropping splendour of the environment when viewed from a distance, Coco sources frame after frame of complete and utter beauty. It isn't just the colours either, it's the cinematography: our camera, if you will, hovers close to Miguel's face for a lot of the film, but keeps the background illuminated as if a reminder of his longing for a more magical, musical life. Once again, Pixar craft an animated film that could only be animated, taking full advantage of the boundless limitations of this form of film making.

Coco may lack the humour of other Pixar greats - very few jokes spring to mind post viewing - but it marks a sign of respect for its audience. The vast majority of the film's humour comes either from the background, through small details, or in brief cutaways to bridge scenes together and further flesh out the story's culture. There really aren't many jokes in the script, but that's because Coco has a lot more on its mind than quirky humour and easy laughs. That's not to say the film isn't an enjoyable one - its bright colours, catchy music and the addition of Miguel's sidekick dog Dante keep things light enough on surface level - it's just much more focused on making us feel and understand than it is making us have fun.

Which would be a disaster if Coco didn't stick the landing, but fortunately it does. After various twists and turns, all of which are entirely satisfying and fully fleshed out, Coco arrives at a conclusion so powerfully moving that the great film we've been watching suddenly transforms into a classic one before our eyes. Coco earns your trust early on, and it earns your tears by the end, and it does all of this without sacrificing artistic integrity or realism. It's easy to make a cheap sad scene, especially with a film of this kind, but Coco's finale feels infinitely richer for how well established it already feels. From a quiet song sung between a boy and his great-grandmother to a photo everyone thought lost forever, Coco will get the first tear out of your eye with about fifteen minutes left of the film, and it doesn't stop until well after the credits roll.

Even with a back catalogue as strong as theirs, I have little issues with labelling Coco top tier stuff from Pixar. The film may have odd quibbles here and there, some awkward pacing or a misplaced joke, but they're more than offset by how strong the core of this story is. Coco presents us with a fully formed world and it populates it with characters whose every motive and every feeling we understand. That it pulls it all together for a stunning conclusion that reels every piece of thematic groundwork the film has laid into an emotional, musical finale feels like a mere bonus, but it's also what makes Coco so unforgettable. Lots of animated films tug at the heartstrings, but very few earn it in the ways that Coco does. If this is the afterlife we're headed for then, hey, maybe death isn't so scary after all.

In A Sentence

An effortlessly emotional look at grown up themes of culture, life and death, Coco is a visually stunning and profoundly thoughtful addition to Pixar's ever growing list of triumphs.

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