Coco

CocoDirectors: Lee Unkirch and Adrian Molina

Screenwriter: Lee Unkirch, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich, and Adrian Molina

Cast: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, and Edward James Olmos

So I was about to write a review of the Justice League because I saw it, and it was the only movie I’d seen recently. I was not too excited about reviewing it because the movie didn’t really give me much of an angle to take. It’s just an okay superhero movie that does what they all do. I was going to do it anyway because dammit, I’m a professional, and I have a quota to keep (as miniscule as it is)! And then the opportunity presented itself for me to take my 3-year-old daughter to see Coco. Now my daughter has only attended one movie and we made it about half way through before she decided she wanted to leave. This time, however, we stayed for the entire movie (including the 30 minute Frozen short film that preceded the feature), so thankfully I have a film that is much more fun to review than Justice League and here it is!

Coco TItle

Coco is another triumph of Pixar studios animation. Every one of their movies has such a distinct and unique environment, which is one of the cornerstones to their ability to stay fresh, inspired, and lively after all of these years. What may surprise you, however is that Coco marks only the fourth time in 19 films where the story focuses primarily on human characters. Only The Incredibles, Brave, and Up have previously done so. That alone, puts Coco in rarified air.

Coco is the story of a young boy named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), who lives in a small Mexican village with his family. Miguel’s family is in the business of making shoes, but what is most pressing to Miguel is his family’s total and complete ban on all music. It turns out Miguel’s great-great grandfather walked out on his family to pursue a career in music and ever since, his family has forbidden all members from engaging in, listening to, or most of all producing any form of music. Miguel, however, has the itch and when he discovers that an old family photo with his great-great grandfather’s face ripped off also features the famous guitar of one of Mexico’s most iconic singers Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), Miguel concludes that he is actually related to the most famous musician in the world! That’s enough to inspire Miguel to challenge his family’s ban on music and compete in the village talent show on the Day of the Dead. Unfortunately, Miguel’s family catches wind of his plan and his Abuelita, grandmother Elena (voiced by Renee Victor) destroys his guitar. Desperate, Miguel breaks into the shrine to the late Ernesto de la Cruz where his famous guitar is displayed and steals it resulting in Miguel being suddenly cursed and transported to the Land of the Dead. The curse makes it so Miguel is no longer visible to the living world. Only a street dog named Dante and the skeletal dead relatives of the living can see Miguel. It turns out to break the curse, Miguel has one day to receive a blessing from his deceased relatives or he will remain in the Land of the Dead forever. Unfortunately, Miguel’s family will not give him their blessing without the condition that he never play music again. This leads Miguel to enlist the help of a lost spirit named Hector (voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal), who claims to have access to Ernesto de la Cruz, a man whose fame in life is only matched by his fame in death. Miguel hopes that if Ernesto grants a blessing to him, he will be able to return home and be a musician.

If there’s one thing you can say about Pixar, it’s that they don’t take a siesta when it comes to story. Justice League is about one-tenth as imaginative as Coco! I mean, first consider the ambition to make story about family, Hispanic culture, tribute, life, death, and tradition. Then consider the added challenge to do all of that in a film aimed at a young audience. Remarkable stuff. The name of the film, “Coco” actually is in reference to Miguel’s great grandmother. She was just 2 or 3 when Miguel’s great-great grandfather left his family. Now Coco is Miguel’s oldest living relative and her memory is fading. This detail develops the film’s most stirring and poignant theme, remembrance. Coco’s fading memory in the Living World is juxtaposed with how the Hector character in the Land of the Dead is in danger of being forgotten forever because his only living relative, and once you are forgotten in the living world, you are gone forever. Pretty deep. Hector’s reason for helping Miguel is not out of the kindness of his heart, but in the hopes that Miguel would return to the Living World and place a picture of Hector on his ofrenda, a Spanish word meaning offering. An ofrenda is a collection of offerings placed on a ritual alter during the Day of the Dead as a gesture of remembrance and an invitation to the Land of the Living for the dead to refresh themselves at the alter. Since Hector is not on anyone’s ofrenda, he is not able to travel to the Land of the Living during the Day of the Dead, he is not able to refresh his spirit, and he is therefore in danger of being completely forgotten. This resonates deeply with the adult audience because of our awareness of our mortality, reputation, and choices. Having attended this film with my 3-year-old girl, I can also speak to this message’s impact on her. Did she ponder her place in the universe and the afterlife? No, of course not. But she did think about Grandma and Nana. She did talk about her brother. She did see characters crying because they were happy and understand the importance of that feeling. That’s a pretty damn decent return on investment for a $7 movie ticket!

So emotions aside, is this a perfect movie? Not exactly, but it does belong in the upper tier of the Pixar conversation. It’s slow build at the start is easily overlooked due to its heart, lack of melodrama, pleasing music, and also its visual beauty. Every great Pixar film has a distinct visual style, but I think that objectively, Coco is the most beautiful film they have delivered so far. The color palate, the vibrant environments, and the hypnotic combination of sight and sound deliver an amazing cinematic experience. A-

Coco is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes. Be warned though, there’s a short film that precedes the feature starring Olaf and the characters from Frozen, and it is about 30 minutes long! It is an amusing short film, but if you were looking to be in the theater for less than 2 ½ hours, you may want to consider arriving to the show late.

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The People’s Critic and his protégé.

Inside Out

inside outDirector: Pete Doctor

Screenwriter: Pete Doctor, Ronoldo Del Carmen

Cast: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Phyllis Smith, and Mindy Kaling

No one goes to the movie theater during the summer and expects to see something cerebral. Well Inside Out, the latest release from Disney’s Pixar studios, has decided to bring the brain, literally.

Inside Out is the fifteenth feature length film from Pixar and it is easily the best since 2009’s Up. And that makes sense, since writer/director Pete Doctor is responsible for both films. As far as plot goes, Inside Out is like a cleaner version of the final vignette from Woody Allen’s 1972 comedy Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask). If that’s too old of a reference for you, then it’s like a smarter version of the 1990’s Fox sitcom Herman’s Head. If you’re like everyone else and you didn’t watch Herman’s Head, then it’s about a young girl named Riley who struggles to cope with her parents’ decision to uproot her from her happy life in Minnesota and move her out to San Francisco. The catch is that Inside Out gives us a glimpse into Riley’s brain, where it is revealed that her emotions are actual beings that interact and conflict in order to form her personality. Joy (Amy Poehler) heads up the team, which consists of Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). When an accident causes Joy and Sadness to be ejected from “headquarters,” it leaves Fear, Anger, and Disgust in charge causing Riley to experience an emotional crisis.

As readers of mine know, when it comes to children’s movies, I ask myself three questions: Is it enjoyable and appropriate for kids? Is it meaningful? Will it at least amuse adults? Pixar Studios has been uniquely successful at balancing these elements for years, and Inside Out is no exception. In fact, this may be the most adult-friendly film the studio has ever produced, and they made a film with a 78-year-old protagonist! Kids will enjoy the animation, fun characters, bright colors, and surface story, but this is a very intelligent allegory on cognitive process and the complexity of emotion – particularly with the role of sadness. It also has a Chinatown joke.

In a summer bound to be full of emotionally shallow films, here is one that will make you think and make you feel. It will also explain why you can never get that annoying TV commercial jingle out of your head.  I’ll admit, I’ve never been an 11-year-old girl, my parents never moved me across the country, and I’ve never met an emotion in person, but I had no trouble relating to every aspect of this film. This is a cleverly executed film that also has a lesson or two to teach about empathy. If only Herman’s Head had seen Inside Out first. A-

Inside Out is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes.

Brave

BraveSometimes objectivity is impossible. That will nearly always be the case when looking at a Pixar Studios release. The track record Pixar has achieved is astounding. This reputation comes from an ideal combination of dazzling visuals, memorable characters, and a beautifully written story. These characteristics have come to be expected. Brave, Pixar’s thirteenth release, simply does not raise the bar. While it is a “good” movie-given it’s predecessors, I can’t help but feel disappointed in Brave. Like I said, Brave is good. It has some laughs, it has some touching moments, and the one spectacular element is its visual effects. Overall, however, Brave feels more contrived than anything else. It is Pixar’s first effort with a female lead, but nothing feels natural about the conflict between Merida and her mother Elinor (and I understand that part of this unnaturalness comes from a very odd curse). The film bets heavily on this mother-daughter conflict, but its just not strong enough or relevant enough to sustain the work by itself, making Brave feel simple. The thematic idea of fate being a choice is crow barred in there as well, but it is drastically underdeveloped. Of course, from a child’s point of view, this is unnecessary criticism. Brave will be a wonderful experience for kids, especially mothers and young daughters, but once again, subjectively speaking, Pixar films have historically not pandered to only this specific audience level. Brave isn’t bad, but there’s just not as much to love. B-