' ' Cinema Romantico: Coco

Tuesday, January 09, 2018


The author Terry McMillan once reasoned that the Land of Oz in the seminal 1939 film about The Wizard somewhere over the rainbow looked a lot better than the farm in Kansas. That no doubt stemmed at least partially from the film’s decision to render Kansas in hardscrabble monochrome and the Land of Oz in glorious Technicolor. “Coco”, on the other hand, Pixar’s latest animated opus, might be prominently set within the Land of the Dead, which looks from afar like an alluring amusement park through the eyes of a child, but it is never any more beautiful than Santa Cecilia, the small Mexican town of its young hero Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), where the cempasuchils laid out for the deceased combined with the orange glow of so many candles lit in their memories imbue an eye-popping warmth. What’s more, director Lee Unkrich and his animators decision to style their Land of the Dead on actual Mexican architecture makes it come across like a fabulous extension of the Land of the Living, which only underscores the film’s overriding examination of familial roots, how they tunnel down into forever and kin, for better or worse, are obligated to maintain them.

Those roots connect to the movie’s other principal subject – that is, music, which Miguel loves, yearning to follow in the footsteps of Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), the late but beloved Mexican singer/songwriter whose tune “Remember Me” becomes the movie’s most prominent leitmotif, though its precise meaning shape-shifts as the story unspools. Miguel, however, must cover up his six string affection given his great-great-grandmother’s fiercely upheld ban on music after Miguel’s great-great-grandfather walked out on his wife and daughter – Miguel’s grandmother Coco – for a life strumming guitar, causing him to be conspicuously absent from the family’s Day of the Dead Altar. As such, Miguel is tapped to follow in his family’s footsteps as a shoemaker, a plot point that could have had been shown just an itty bitty more love than a kind of comical shrug. Then again, to a kid whose sole passion is being parentally thwarted, the alternate would seem so dire.

It is Miguel’s desire to play music anyway that sets him forth on his journey, one born of his polite pilfering of Ernesto de la Cruz’s guitar, strummed at just the wrong instant to magically send him from the Land of the Living to the Land of the Dead, the latter reached by a flowered bridge, with the border between the two overseen by patrol stations, which are festively presented though there double meaning sits right there in plain view. Miguel winding up in the wrong time and place evokes “Back to the Future”, of course, a sensation augmented by Miguel’s discovery that if he fails to find his way home by sun-up, he will become dead himself, sending him on a frantic quest to escape, one aided by his hairless dog ally and a new friend Héctor (Gael García Bernal) who is desperate to cross the border.

“Coco” never goes truly dark, though it easily could, considering the movie hinges losing loved ones forever. If no one in the land of living is left to remember you, then you vanish from the land of the dead, a fate to which Hector seems bound, as if your soul, your self, is simply…extinguished. It’s confronting the finality of the death, in other words, though Miguel never really wrestles with it even though it’s staring him straight in the face. If that’s a little disappointing, I nevertheless also understand its narrative elimination, as Dia de Muertos, after all, is not a solemn affair but a celebration, one which the movie’s buoyant tone, colorful visuals and attention to detail evoke. Characters in the Land of the Dead are designed to look like the Calacas and Calaveras that ornament so many Day of the Dead festivities, and Pixar’s fabled commitment to detail is everywhere, from the goatee that dots Héctor’s visage to the club D.J. Miguel briefly encounters, merely a background character but one that expressly enriches the entire milieu.

The Day of the Dead as a holiday to honor loved ones’ memories correlates to the movie’s post pertinent twist, one I will not spoil, though it is fairly easy to predict, though that predictability is offset in how it becomes connected not simply to familial revelations but to the shattering of false idols. Indeed, an early shot finds Miguel paying homage to a homemade Ernesto de la Cruz shrine, copying the late star’s guitar chords, which “Coco” renders in a close-up of Miguel’s fingers, each one vibrantly bending as he plays. Here, however, he is merely a mimic, and eventually he will grow into himself, never more than an impromptu performance at the Land of the Dead’s Battle of the Bands, where the animation allows him to bound about the stage in a way live action could never allow, where performing becomes an eruption of the soul.

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