Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
November 2017


Family plot

On timing and cultural specificity, family art and history, and Pixar's longful preoccupation with the past

Walt Disney Studios
Director: Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Screenplay: Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renee Victor, Jaime Camil, Alfonso Arau, Edward James Olmos and Natalia Cordova-Buckley
Rated PG / 1 hour, 45 minutes / 2.39:1
November 21, 2017
(out of four)

Coco is, more or less, the movie Pixar aspires to be every time around. It's a crisply written, brightly colored story about loss and gain and growing up, tossed right down the middle between jovial and melancholy, its perspective through adolescent eyes belying the gravity of the grown-up realities it willingly confronts. It's about a kid defiantly doing what he's told he can't, it's about reconnecting with family, it's about either finding home, or otherwise discovering what home means. There's lovely, exquisitely detailed computer animation, there's music and adventure, there's a main character permanently inspired by the ritual of watching an old movie on videotape. It is the very embodiment of the brand Pixar has been refining for two-plus decades.

And yet it's also a demonstration of the animation giant's somewhat diminished status. Coco has been singled out - and looked forward to - as a representational and aesthetic step forward (more on that momentarily), yet it wound up being a sort of inferior version, in varying ways, of both Reel FX's The Book of Life (released in 2014) and Laika's Kubo and the Two Strings (2016). This is a lovely film, but there's not a single curve it's ahead of. It's gotten attention for being something new for Pixar, yet the movie itself is most conspicuous for how new it isn't. It almost feels like a movie they made a decade or so ago that was sitting on the shelf somewhere. Instead, it plays as a good, solid incarnation of the type of storytelling Pixar has done better elsewhere, and a lesser counterpart to films made by other studios while Pixar was busy churning out Cars sequels.

Falling behind the pack is no crime, and as far as that goes Coco is still a fine accomplishment in and of itself. But timely it's not. After detailing the lives and adventures of toys, bugs, monsters, superheroes, cars, rats, robots, geriatrics, Scots, emotions, dinosaurs and a whole host of largely homogeneous, culturally non-specific protagonists, now Pixar has given us actual brown people. (!) Set in Mexico (both the terrestrial version and its proximal land of the dead) and revolving around a Mexican boy and generations of his extended family, the film is only the second time, after 2012's Brave, that Pixar has wandered into culturally specific waters at all. (Sadly, the myriad affected nationalities in the Cars universe do not count.) And while, on the matter of cultural specificity, I imagine it's only a matter of time before Hollywood studios discover Mexican culture does not begin and end with the Day of the Dead and its accompanying iconography, Coco nonetheless uses the holiday and its emotional, spiritual, and familial resonance with sincerity and charm.

Aside from just its metaphysically adjacent locations, the movie takes up residence on the Venn diagram between past and present - one being defined by the other, one giving life to the other, the two perpetually reshaping one another. Here, that relationship is exemplified by a bowdlerized family photograph and an artifactual guitar immortalized in a celebrity mausoleum, both objects tied up by lingering pains and family secrets, stubbornly held beliefs and attitudes, that have crossed generations. In its 12-year-old protagonist Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), the Rivera family has a set of fresh eyes through which they can untie old emotional knots and resentments, and better understand their ancestral history. For him personally, he just wants to be able to play the guitar - an activity strictly forbidden by his family for generations now, stemming from his great-great-grandmother Coco's abandonment as a young child by her ambitious musician father. The family has kept its head out of the clouds ever since.

Music is so expressly forbidden that Miguel has to keep his infatuation for local legend Ernesto de la Cruz - star musician turned movie star who died tragically on a movie set, in the middle of what became his most legendary number - a secret. He sneaks away to his hiding place, full of ornamental mementos and tchotchkes baring de la Cruz's likeness, all surrounding the small TV set that glows with the immortalized images of Miguel's hero.

Miguel is expected to make shoes for a living. This is the family business. That he is on the cusp of finally revealing to his family his desire to be a musician instead - or more accurately, just not being able or willing to keep it a secret any longer - will require, on the persuasion front, more than just your traditional impassioned plea. Through a breathless sequence of events that culminates in a bit of minor breaking-and-entering, Miguel finds himself on the other side of the Day of the Dead threshold, doomed to remain there unless he can solve a family mystery and break a curse (or rather, convince someone to break it on his behalf) before daybreak.

Early on his journey he crosses paths with Héctor (Gael Garcia Bernal), who proves a useful, charming but mercurial sidekick. He's desperate to get over to the land of the living, for reasons not yet explained, but the border has strict protocols in place that prevent him from crossing. No one on the other side remembers him, and thus he has no invitation. But he and Miguel realize they can be of assistance to one another. Héctor knows his way around this place, and can guide Miguel where he needs to go and who he needs to meet - which turns out to include Ernesto de la Cruz himself. And once his mission is accomplished, Miguel promises that, upon his return to the land of the living, he'll put up Héctor's photograph in remembrance, thus allowing him to cross over. (There seems to be some contradiction with the internal logic that governs the ability to cross over. It's mentioned elsewhere in the film that remembrance only counts if you knew the person in life; knowing them in the land of the dead doesn't count. But perhaps there's a loophole I'm missing.)

Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich's script connects the dots between past and present, living and dead, easily, but never condescendingly. There are rarely surprises (even the moments structured to be surprises), but such wit to the staging and the performances, and to the way Miguel interacts with his spectral surroundings, that it's always a delight to watch even when the narrative feels like it's on autopilot. The story process has always been Pixar's most notable hallmark, but ... well, let me put it like this: Coco features not one but two music competitions as major plot devices, one in Miguel's village and one in the land of the dead. Pixar at its best, making a movie about a budding musician, would never settle for such an obvious plot point to force the issue, especially considering the story itself really doesn't need it; the competitions are used primarily as cheap shortcuts to other aspects of the story.

The conception of the land of the dead and those who inhabit it - or at least this corner of it - are far more enjoyable, not to mention far more useful to the film's preoccupation with art, death, and the way the past is kept alive by the remembrance and tribute of the living. Among the most revealing things for Miguel is that there's still quite a hierarchy in this world - and none other than de la Cruz is at the top of it, the king of the manor that towers over the rest of the town, the host of all the most lavish parties. Meanwhile, Miguel crosses paths with Frida Kahlo, ever the iconoclast, even on the other side (and whom, it should be noted, is essentially on easy street as far as her continuing existence goes; while others in this land fade away forever once there's no one left on Earth to remember them, the enduring recognizability of Frida's visage guarantees her spiritual preservation for generations to come).

With that emphasis on the act of remembering, Pixar once again returns to one of its most persistent fixations - not just nostalgia, but the way one's identity is formed by icons of the past immortalized in visual art. Coco is populated by familiar faces being cast, and understood, in a new light; such is the neverending process of remembrance itself, ensuring everything that passes through it that it will, somehow, live on.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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