Families are wondrous and complicated things.
We draw so much of our identity and support from them and yet we can also be messily at odds with them, inextricably part of them through flesh-and-blood and life experience, but separated by differing personality, opinion and life ambition.
Pixar’s latest masterpiece, and yes, it is exactly that in every sense of the word, Coco explores this delightfully contrary dynamic with a breathtakingly affecting insightfulness and truthfulness that will leave you gasping with recognition and healed in ways you weren’t aware you needed.
While it takes as narrative inspiration, the Mexican holiday known as Día de Muertos / Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and runs with it in glorious and culturally-authentic fashion, the themes are universal – that family matters more than anything but not at the expense, completely anyway, of personal expression and ambition and that healing can be found for grievances generations-old.
Pixar’s films have always rung true with an emotional resonance profoundly more nuanced and advanced than anything in their animated cousins (save for a few of Disney’s earlier animation triumphs) but Coco is something else again, a rich, joy-filled and tension-drenched journey that aims to right the wrongs, or one big one in particular, that have almost irrevocably broken a family.
This family, the Riveras who have become famed shoemakers in their home town, are in every sense as warm and rich as any other; multi-generations living under the same roof, beginning with the titular Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) right down through to aspiring musician Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), with familial power wielded by the loving but dramatically firm Abuelita Elena Rivera (Renée Victor).
But they are scarred by one emotionally-cataclysmic event from generations past – the decision by Coco’s father to abandon the family in favour of a career in music, a case of personal ambition trumping family that Coco’s mother Mamá Imelda Rivera (Alanna Ubach) that resulted in music being comprehensively banned from the family’s ongoing narrative.
Shoes became their escape from ruinous poverty and so while Abuelita’s decision to bring Miguel into the family business to make shoes after school is celebrated, his secret veneration, which becomes less-than-secret as time goes on, of Mexico’s famed singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) is most certainly not.
This great familial divide, enforced with ruthless efficiency by Abuelita who believes she is honouring the memory and wishes of her beloved mother Coco – the truth, we see later on, is vastly more nuanced than her assumptions – is the great narrative drive of this extraordinarily beautiful film.
Coco richly and lusciously immerses you in an exploration of how dynamic affects Miguel and Coco, to whom he is quite close despite her saying very little of anything, all of which takes place on the day, and most importantly, the night of Día de Muertos, the one night of the year on which the dead, guided by orange flower petals carefully arranged on the ground and their venerated photos on family ofrendas (altars), can visit and see their living family members.
It is a vibrant, colourful and joy-filled holiday, with cemeteries becoming places of celebration and reunion, food and drink offered to dead relatives that they can enjoy in the afterlife, and family drawing together and renewing their bonds of love and closeness.
But Miguel isn’t feeling too close to anyone on the holiday, determined to enter a talent show and showcase his impressive musical prowess, an ambition quite obviously not countenanced in even the slightest degree by his Abuelita or the extended family who heed her directives.
Short a guitar after Abuelita destroys the old one, he goes to Ernesto’s tomb in the town – he is a richly-celebrated son of the town by everyone but the Riveras – and takes down the singer’s guitar and plays it, an act which immediately takes him to a quasi-dead state which allows him to enter the brilliantly imaginative, art deco-inspired land of the dead where he reunites with his family, including grand matriarch Imelda.
Thus is set in train one of Pixar’s grandly complicated but emotionally pure trademark narratives where much is at stake but much is saved; we all know it will end happily but the getting there is an immensely, beautifully rich and tense journey where much goes wrong as much is also, quite happily, going right.
Narrative triumphs aside, and there are many, what really sets Coco apart as something utterly unique and nourishing for the spirit, is its commitment to being culturally true to Mexican culture, folklore and music.
Coco, we are assured, is as authentic as it comes, from the opening exposition executed through the use of decorative paper craft papel picado, where we learn of the great loss the Riveras suffered all those years ago, to the music sourced and created by DJ and producer Camilo Lara in concert with composer Germaine Franco, which drew on the soundscapes of Mexican films from the 1930s and ’40s and uses Mexico City’s finest musicians to bring them to enchanting life to the alebrijes, fantastically mystical spirit guide animals who prove integral to the plot.
Thanks to a dedicated team of cultural consultants, Coco avoided, and thankfully so, being whitewashed, something that would have attracted justifiable opprobrium, but which would have robbed this remarkable film of almost all of its energising colour, vibrancy, truth and message.
A love letter to Mexico, and its varied, amazingly wonderful culture, Coco, directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina – the two men came up with the story with Matthew Aldrich and Jason Katz, with the screenplay executed by Molina and Aldrich – is a glossy, explodingly colourful film that revels in the emotionally-resonant, substantial, fun and reverent culture from which it draws with respect and authenticity.
While all of the animation is top notch and a joy to take in, it’s the extensive adventures in the land of the dead, where Miguel learn far more about his family than he could have imagined and justice, actual and emotional, is served, that really steal each and every scene.
Everything from the homes all stacked riotously upon each other, painted a rain bow plus of colours and garlanded with a profusion of light chains to the art deco cable cars to the societal structure are beyond compare, far more alive and deliciously vigorous and yes, animated, that anything in the land of the living which in Pixar’s hand, is still beguiling and impressive too.
Coco is a masterpiece, a film that takes top flight animation, music and a culture impossibly resplendent in music, the value of family and a thousand other things besides, and delivers up a story that reaffirms the importance of family, but family which grows, is alive and develops, and understands that sometimes healing and an appreciation for the diverse talents that make it up, may be needed to keep the memories alive and renew and enliven the bonds that keep it strong and make it something truly special and worth belonging and celebrating at every turn.
OLAF’S FROZEN ADVENTURE
One of the most delightful parts of Christmas are the various traditions you accrete over time – some silly, some profound but all meaningful in one way or another.
But what if you never got a chance to develop any traditions? How do you make Christmas special for you when everyone around has their own magical things they do from baking certain foods to decorating their tree a certain way to singing carols to feral cats (hmm, perhaps that’s just me)?
That’s the dilemma facing Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Menzel) from the lovely Scandinavian kingdom of Arendell who, if you can cast your mind back to the heady innocent days of 2013, reconnected after Elsa created all sorts of problems working out what to do with her magical ice-making powers.
It made for a gripping adventure and some quite lovely, Academy Award-winning song accented family bonding; what it didn’t do so well was provide any kind of roadmap for life after you stopping being an emotionally disaffected, temporaily evil ice queen.
Like what do you do at Christmas when the Yule Bell has rung and everyone else in the kingdom has gone to celebrate in their own time-honoured ways, leaving Anna, Elsa and Olaf to eat all the food at the big banquet planned to kick off Christmas festivities.
Well if you’re Olaf and you’re the protagonist of your very own adventure, you go door to doo in the kingdom to discover what other families do and decide if their traditions are “special enough”.
That little quip is just one of the many oneliners delivered in Olaf’s Frozen Adventure which precedes Coco (or did if you’re in the USA; the short was pulled says Disney according to schedule while others mused mused on whether it was the less than stellar reaction to the short by many people).
As Olaf goes door-to-door in the kingdom, he comes across families who makes candy canes – one of which becomes his new nose and cause a psychedelic sugar rush – a woman who makes indedible fruitcakes (cue great visual gag with hot cake and cold snowman) to, the oneliners pile up thick, and amusingly fast.
“Breaking and entering? OK on Christmas.” “You cut down a tree and then you dress its corpse with candles? I love it!”
Josh Gad is at his giddily exuberant best as Olaf, gleefully rushing hither and yon (with Sven the reindeer’s help), seeking festive inspiration wherever he can, all in the hope of rescuing Christmas for his beloved Elsa and Anna, who aren’t getting quite the help they expected from well-intentioned but dimwitted Kristoff (Jonathan Groff).
As you might expect with Olaf things don’t go according to plan, and while his best laid plans go a tad fiery awry, it turns out Elsa and Ana might have a tradition after all.
While the songs by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson that punctuate the 21 minute short – “Ring in the Season”, “The Ballad of Flemmingrad”, “That Time of Year” and “When We’re Together” – aren’t quite as catchy or memorable as their feature-length predecessors (courtesy of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez), and they perhaps pop up a tad too often, robbing them of their full majesty and effect, they nevertheless gift Olaf’s Frozen Adventure with a vivacity that speeds its narrative nicely along.
The short may not be the traditional idiosyncratic Pixar short we have grown used to, but it is heartfelt, a visual treat (the decorations in and around Arendell are a Christmas fantasy sprung to animated life) and gorgeously captures the festive giddy joy of the season, anchored by a superlatively good performance by Gad as Olaf who simply wants to make Christmas special again.