Second Sight: Culture & Coco

Lee Unkrich's first solo directorial effort, Toy Story 3, was a landmark achievement.  Fusing elements of prison escape films with heartfelt drama, the film was nominated for both Best Animated Feature and Best Picture, winning the former.  His second film, Coco is an epic of the heart that will undoubtedly earn similar awards.  Through Herculean effort to remain culturally sensitive, Unkrich and his crew have created a touching tribute to family and traditions, that is presented through the lens of a people that have come under fire over the past several years.  The result is a visual titan that features a wonderfully authentic voice cast and a potent (if predictable) statement about the importance of your personal tribe.  

Miguel is a gifted musician whose family forbids him to play, due to their belief that music was the cause of past familial discord.  On the Day of the Dead, Miguel finds himself trapped on the other side, searching for his ancestor’s spirit in hopes of being able to return to the land of the living.  Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich's screenplay capitalizes on the established Pixar playbook by presenting a rebellious child protagonist whose quest is ultimately about reminding his guardians of the importance of love and family.  However, the narrative goes further, enriching the established ideas with undeniably human charm and even a touch of darkness.  While death is the centerpiece of the story, it is approached with nuance and respect for its youthful target audience. 

Once the narrative shifts to the world of the dead, Coco truly finds its stride.  It is here that the visuals take on a life of their own.  Miguel's first panoramic view of the neon necropolis is breathtaking.  The sheer technological might of its presentation initially invokes thoughts of Blade Runner’s opening cityscape; however, its vibrant and magical color palette sets it apart.    Matt Aspbury and Danielle Feinburg's gorgeous cinematography is some of the best in the genre.  Every frame is crisp and the colors pop whenever they can, including a stunning 2D intro story that sets the stage.  

Anthony Gonzalez's inspired performance as Miguel is just one of an outstanding voice ensemble.  He is joined by Benjamin Bratt and Alanna Ubach whose supporting turns are the heart’s blood of Coco's musical fable.  Bratt in particular has a tremendous amount of fun with his portrayal of a legendary musician, while Ubach's fluidity as Miguel's matriarchal ancestor is one of the film's many surprises.  Her transition through each arc is symbolic of the film's majesty.  Even when you know it's coming, you're simply to endeared to care.  Gael Garcia Bernal rounds out the cast as a ghastly huckster who moonlights as a rogue mariachi.  His scenes with Gonzalez are the height of the story, almost eclipsing the unforgettable visuals with their chemistry alone.  Each of the main players gets a turn in the limelight, performing an array of Mexican themed ballads that are equally enchanting and sentimental.  In particular, the beautifully performed Remember Me is sure to get awards recognition during the season.  

The production of the film is in itself a miracle.  Unkrich and Pixar lessened their usual secrecy with respect to plot and brought in many outsiders to assist them in ensuring the film was culturally authentic.  The evidence is in virtually every scene, with dozens of important relics, symbols, and costumes sprinkled throughout.  The cadence of the language, both verbal and physical are powerful examples for the attention to detail put into the film.  Coco was released in Mexico a week before the Day of the Dead and a month before its US debut and the film has been praised by the Latino community along with critics both from countries.  

In theaters now, Coco is one of the best animated features of the year.  While it doesn't reinvent the wheel with respect to the genre and Pixar's formula, it perfects it, presenting an absolutely stunning visual and musical sojourn that will hopefully capture gold during awards season.   

--Kyle Jonathan