Each year at Annecy Film Festival, Disney has its “Work in Progress” presentation of their newest upcoming animated features. This year was Pixar’s turn as they presented us footage and some inside information on their next original movie, “Coco”. This was followed by a screening of “Lou” and “Cars 3” but since most folks have already seen these, we’ll skip ahead.
I know it’s not original to say that I miss the good old times when Pixar used to be the studio that can do no wrong, and I’m far from a hater on some of the newer Pixar efforts but “Good Dinosaur” felt like bunch of overdone clichés glued together and I hate that the studio is focusing mostly on producing sequels. I remember when “Wall-E” or “Up” blew everybody away, not only by how fresh they felt but in the real magic and unique heart to the stories. I’m happy to report “Coco” is much closer to these movies, definitely their best release since “Inside Out”.
This Mexico-set movie opens with a little boy, Miguel (Anthony Gonzales), retelling his family history. Years ago his great-grandmother (Renée Victor) was left by her husband and ever since, the family focused on shoe making and sewing. Oddly, his family also is known for a strong dislike of any type of music, which is unusual for this fiesta-loving town. Miguel not only doesn’t understand where this music hate is coming from but is obsessed with Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), an amazing musician, lover and actor, who died years ago tragically (well comically) after being crushed by a bell. Miguel spends days secretly watching videos of Ernest and learning to play guitar until one day he gets a clue pointing out that the famed musician is in fact his mysterious grandfather!
Miguel is excited by the news and wants to star in the local talent show. This angers his grandmother who destroys his guitar. Desperate, Miguel decides to “borrow” a guitar from Ernest de la Cruz’s tomb, thinking his grandfather will be “cool” with that. However, it’s Día de Muertos which is all about giving to the dead, and since Miguel has stolen something from the dead he gets punished by being turned into a ghost! Miguel soon finds himself in the land of the dead where he meets a bunch of his skeletal ancestors.
The way to go back to land of the living seems quite simple at first, as Miguel has to get a blessing from his relatives. Unfortunately for him, they all have the right to give him one condition and as it turns out, they are as music hating as Miguel’s grandmother. He is given a condition to renounce music forever, to which he agrees but then breaks that promise quickly at which point he discovers that if he doesn’t get back before the next day he will join them eternally in the land of the dead as a skeleton. Miguel decides to find his grandfather, hoping he will be the one person who shares his passion for music and will help him out. On his journey he’s joined by a skeleton trickster named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) who offers to help the boy out but only if he puts Hector’s photo on his grave; he can’t pass into next stage of the afterlife unless somebody remembers him.
I had more fun during the first 20 minutes of “Coco” then during the entirety of “Cars 3” (and half of what we were shown were just the storyboards). It’s packed with fun gags, many taking advantage of the Mexican setting, but there are plenty of great character driven moments as well. Some jokes are quite clever: One of the skeletons used to be allergic to dogs, but now that he has no nose, he’s only allergic to hairless dogs. Speaking of dogs, Miguel’s dog, Dante, is probably the most fun movie dog since Doug from “Up”. Plenty of humor comes from how goofy looking he is (he even uses his tongue like a frog). One of the jokes that got the biggest laugh involved Miguel watching tapes of Ernesto, all showing him playing a campy Don Juan-like lover who is always breaking into song. Even in one where he is talking to a Nun, Ernesto cannot help but stay in his over-the-top romantic style.
The animation also looks very promising. Other than Dante, the most outstanding character has to be Miguel’s ancient grandmother. She’s very old and wrinkled, barely moves, and she can’t remember things well, but the design team did an incredible job! They somehow managed to make her a beautiful symbol of the senile elderly. Every second she’s on the screen you just want to hug her! The animators mention they spent a lot time examining old people and how their cheeks moved and it really shows. Also, the land of the dead isn’t merely a bunch of skeletons but is filled with neon-colorful creatures taken from Mexico’s folk art. Some small, other gigantic – like the giant winged tiger Miguel’s family owns.
Of course it’s now impossible to talk about “Coco” without bringing up another animated movie, “The Corpse Bride”. The colorful underworld with lots of rules, the way they are transported to the afterlife, some of the skeleton related-slapstick… man what a rip-off! I’m joking, but honestly I had more déjà vu comparing it with Burton’s stop-motion fairy tale then with Guillermo Del Toro’s “Book of Life”. Are there similarities there? Sure, but they’re both based around the same holiday, and let’s face it: some similar visuals, folklore, and themes are bound to be repeated. It’s like complaining that two movies about Christmas both involve Santa Claus, the North Pole and morals about family. And let’s face it, the idea of the character traveling to land of the dead isn’t terribly new; the storyline goes back to ancient classics like “The Divine Comedy” or even the myth of Orpheus. During the screening I’m sure Pixar was fully aware of possible comparisons with Del Toro’s film, what with only two animated movies about Día de Muertos being out there. They definitely did their best to distance themselves from Del Toro’s vision as much as possible, all while remaining true to the holiday.
I’m glad Día de Muertos is getting more and more attention. While the story is about Miguel’s passion for music and his relations with his large family it also touches themes of the holiday: death and remembering late loved ones. I really like the Mexican approach of presenting the memorial of the dead or visiting graves as something that is positive and fun.