Review: Coco (2017)

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Coco (2017)

Directed by: Adrian Molina, Lee Unkrich | 126 minutes | animation, adventure, comedy, family, fantasy, musical | Dutch voice cast: Wiebe Pier Cnossen, Thijs Overpelt, Ilse Warringa, Ara Alici, Marloes van der Heuvel, Klaas van Kruistem, Saskia Weerstand | Original voice cast: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renee Victor, Jaime Camil, Alfonso Arau, Herbert Siguenza, Gabriel Iglesias, Lombardo Boyar, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Selene Luna, Edward James Olmos, Sofia Espinosa, Carla Medina

They always seem very innocent, those Disney and Pixar movies. But if you really think about how often a beloved character dies prematurely, it’s quite shocking. The death scenes often leave deep traces in the tender souls of the young – but also older – viewer. For example, who hasn’t been traumatized by that horrible shotgun shot that killed Bambi’s mother; or worse, the look of despair turning to fear in the baby deer’s deep brown eyes. And another unforgettably sad moment: the death of Simba’s father Mufasa in ‘The Lion King’ (1994). Thrown by his own brother before the devastating hooves of a gigantic herd of wildebeest, under the watchful eye of his son. Even the king of the jungle is not spared by Disney. The first ten minutes of Pixar’s ‘Up’ (2009) prove that a much less violent death can come just as hard. An endearing way is shown how young Carl Fredricksen gets to know his later lover Ellie as a boy, how the two grow closer thanks to their love for an explorer and how they make a promise to each other. They get married, much to their sorrow, have no children and then suddenly Ellie falls ill. ‘Till death do us part’ in a nutshell. Death in animation could hardly be more moving.

With ‘Coco’ (2017), Disney/Pixar has now made a film in which death plays the leading role. At the heart of the story is the Mexican holiday and commemoration day Dia de Muertos, the period between October 31 and November 2 when relatives and friends come together to commemorate the deceased. It is believed that the souls of children return to Earth on November 1 and those of adults on November 2. Throughout the year, Mexicans prepare for the festival. In this way things are collected that will be offered to the dead. In the run-up to Dia de Muertos, the graves are cleaned and decorated. Some families build altars in their homes. The graves are visited and food and drink are offered to the deceased. For people from other countries, this is a remarkable spectacle. The same goes for Pixar’s Lee Unkrich, who was triggered by the contrast between the skeletons and skulls in bright and exuberant colors and decided to delve into it. The more he learned about Dia de Muertos’ background, the more it touched him personally. In 2010, when his directed ‘Toy Story 3’ (2010) hit theaters, he launched his idea for a Pixar film around Dia de Muertos. It didn’t take long for Unkrich to get the green light. While he was working on ‘Coco’, ‘The Book of Life’ hit theaters in 2014. This musical and colorful animated film, made by Reel FX and released by 20th Century Fox, also revolves around Dia de Muertos and angry tongues soon claimed that ‘Coco’ would be a rip-off of ‘The Book of Life’. We’ve seen those “twin movies” before — “A Bug’s Life” and “Antz,” for example, both from 1998 — and compared to previous examples, “Coco” and “The Book of Life” differ enough from each other to value each other. can be estimated.

‘Coco’ is all about family. The Mexican Rivera family to be exact. In the introduction, we discover that materfamilias Imelda (Alanna Ubach) was once married to a musician, who left her and their daughter Coco to pursue a career in the music world. From that moment on, out of grief and revenge, Imelda banned any form of music in the family. Instead, she focused on making shoes. Then we make a big leap forward in time and we see Imelda’s great-great-grandchild, twelve-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), who lives with the now very old Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), his grandmother Elena (Renee Victor), his parents and other relatives lives in a small village. He secretly dreams of becoming a musician and his idol is the legendary pop and movie star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who died tragically decades ago but is still fondly remembered by thousands of people. When Miguel tries to sign up for a talent show for Dia de Muertos, Grandma Elena crushes his guitar. Saddened, Miguel turns to the family altar, where he sees the man next to Imelda, whose head has been ripped from the photo, holding Ernesto’s guitar. Would he be Miguel’s great-great-grandfather? He decides to go to Ernesto’s tomb to borrow his guitar for the talent show – that’s probably allowed if they turn out to be family.

But the mausoleum turns out to be a gateway between the land of the living and that of the dead. The living suddenly walk right through him and not long after that he comes face to face with deceased relatives from the land of the dead, who make the crossing because of Dia de Muertos. If he doesn’t return to the land of the living before sunrise, he’ll turn into one of the dead and can’t go back. Only when a deceased relative, such as his great-great-grandmother Imelda, gives him his blessing, can he return. However, she only wants to do that if he gives up his love for music, and Miguel has no intention of doing that. Instead, he goes looking for Ernesto, hoping that he will give him his blessing, but without all those snags. He gets help in his quest from Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a bum who once played with Ernesto and who has his own goal. The dead who are no longer remembered by family members are in danger of disappearing for good: they have literally been forgotten. Hector hopes that, in return for his help, Miguel can return his photo to his daughter in the land of the living, so she can remember him and ensure his continued existence in the land of the dead.

Skeletons and skulls, that doesn’t really sound like a movie you’d take your eight-year-old to. However, Pixar’s illustrators have managed to make even a collection of bones sort of cuddly. The dead are therefore absolutely not frightening, rather funny and touching. What makes ‘Coco’ so special is the reverence with which Mexican culture in general, and that around Dia de Muertos in particular, is treated. What this commemorative tradition for the Mexicans should be – a spiritual and most loving event, celebrating not only life but also death – is captured by Unkrich and his people in a colorful adventure about the power of family ties, so that it can also be becomes tangible and palpable for outsiders like us. The fact that ‘Coco’ is faithful to Mexican folklore can be seen in large but also small gestures; from the beautiful ‘offrenda’ or the elaborately decorated family altar from which so much love radiates, via the golden yellow petals that form the bridge between the world of the living and that of the dead to the wonderful ‘alebrijes’, the colorful animal spirits that protect the dead and keep company (as Miguel, in turn, gets company from the Mexican hairless dog Dante). But besides all those small and bigger odes to reality, ‘Coco’ fortunately also offers a lot of space for the endless fantasy of the people at Pixar. Before the dead can make their trip to the land of the living, they first have to pass a kind of checkpoint, where a body scan is made to check whether their photo is still on display in a frame. Make it up!

Among all the sequels that Pixar has released in recent years, ‘Coco’ is a nice breath of fresh air. Despite the parallels with ‘The Book of Life’, this is really a standalone story, written by Adrian Molina (of Mexican descent indeed) and Matthew Aldrich who have created lively characters that we start to feel sincerely for. Thanks to the voice cast consisting of almost exclusively Latin American actors (Gael Garcia Bernal is a true discovery as a voice actor!), the beautiful music of Pixar regular Michael Giacchino – in which they also remain faithful to Mexican culture – and the overwhelming visual splendor and pomp (we haven’t even mentioned the spectacular look of the land of the dead, for instance) mere mortals like you and me, who live very far from Mexico, are also drawn into the film. It is the universal message about the power of family ties that touches us. It may not be the most original message, but the form in which it is cast definitely is.

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