By: Matthew Silkin | Features  | 

Coco Es Muy Buena

Let’s talk about the history of animation. Discounting ancient Iranian pottery depicting animals reaching into trees for food, modern animation can be traced back to the early and mid-1800s zoetrope, one of those cylinders with slits that you might have seen in a museum somewhere. The gist is that by taking several different pictures, each showing a part of a motion in succession, placing them into a cylinder with a light source, and spinning it, the illusion of motion can be created. This was adapted in the very early 1900s to cartoon animation, popularized by such early animators as Max Fleischer, who created the classic character Betty Boop, and Walt Disney (come on, you know who he is). To go into a more comprehensive history from that point would make this article worth three credits and require that I assign a midterm and final, so suffice it to say that animation since then has always been about pushing the envelope of what we consider to be reality, and to create an atmosphere of the fantastical.

Which is to say that 2017 has been a tad bit disappointing in the animation department. Sure, CG has been perfected to the point of perfection, but we’ve been somewhat lacking in pure animation. The Lego Batman Movie was a good movie, sure, but it didn’t really build on any ground that The Lego Movie already tread back in 2014. The Boss Baby and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie were standard fare from Dreamworks, in that they were just alright and, like The Lego Batman Movie, didn’t bring anything new to the table. To call The Emoji Movie a dumpster fire would be an insult to dumpster fires, and I have way too much self respect to force myself to watch My Little Pony: The Movie. So after I was similarly let down by Pixar’s Cars 3, I was starting to lose my faith in animation.

And then came Coco.

Coco is the 19th movie released by Pixar Animation Studios, and is directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. It tells the story of Miguel Rivera, a young boy and aspiring musician in a family that hates music, who ends up trapped in the Land of the Dead on Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), a Mexican holiday commemorating the spirits of past family members, where it is believed that the ancestors come to the Land of the Living to visit their families. To get out, he requires the blessing of a family member, and so he sets out with his new dead jokester friend Héctor to find Ernesto de la Cruz, a famous musician whom Miguel idolizes and believes is his great-great grandfather. Along the way, the movie touches upon the themes of family, death, memory, and aspiration, as well as bringing in aspects of Mexican culture, specifically relating to Día de Muertos.

First things first: this movie will make you cry. The manly man within you scoffs, and will probably continue to scoff until about the last 15 minutes of the movie, where he too will break down in both tears of sadness and happiness. This is due in large part to the amazing voice work throughout, specifically Anthony Gonzalez as the protagonist Miguel and Gael García Bernal as Héctor. Their personalities bounce off each other well, which is important since much of the narrative surrounds their interaction. As this is a musical, credit must be given to the songs as well, specifically the song “Remember Me,” which comes up in the more emotional moments of the film and absolutely deserves, at the very least, a nomination (if not a win) for Best Original Song. The movie is also hilarious, especially the various cameos by famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (or in some cases, Frida Kahlo-imitations) throughout. I’m sure there were more blink-and-you-miss-it moments with other Mexican celebrities; unfortunately, I don’t know that much about Mexican culture, so I missed them, but maybe if I knew more I would have caught an additional one or two.

Speaking about Mexican culture, I learned quite a bit about it from this film. Did you know that a spirit can only enter the Land of the Living on Día de Muertos if their living family puts their picture on an altar called an ofrenda (offering)? I sure didn’t, and now that I saw Coco, I do! I have no clue if it’s entirely accurate -- I can say with about 75% confidence that alebrijes, or guiding spirit animals as the film presents them, don’t really exist -- but that’s what Google is for, and now that I have the concept in my knowledge I can search for more information about it. I can’t normally talk about the educational aspects of the movies I watch, usually because there are none most of the time, so now that Coco has that introduction to Mexican culture and customs, I want to take the time to point it out as another notch in the “Why you should stop reading this review and drive to your nearest theater to watch Coco” column.

But what drew me in the most, and why I spent the first paragraph going into detail about zoetropes and Max Fleischer, is the animation. This is, dare I say, the most beautiful movie I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing in theaters. The first moments of Miguel taking in the Land of the Dead from the bridge of flower petals is my new standard for jaw-dropping, and it never got worse from there. The details on all the skeletons was intricate, the architecture of the buildings in the Land of the Dead was breathtaking, the colors and movements of the alebrijes were graceful and pleasing to the eye. This movie, in a word, was gorgeous, and I cannot lather enough praise on it. I legitimately do not believe any of the other aspects of the film which I have already lauded would have been a third as praiseworthy if it wasn’t for the Pixar animation team working tirelessly to bring us this aesthetically perfect movie.

If there’s one criticism I have against the experience of watching Coco in theaters, it would be the short that accompanies it. Usually, Pixar introduces their theatrical releases with a five to ten minute short film, such as Lava, which appeared before Inside Out, or Piper, which preceded Finding Dory. Coco was preceded by Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, a twenty-two minute musical holiday special starring everyone’s favorite anthropomorphic snowman, Olaf. This would be perfectly serviceable at best, with two caveats: if it was about 15 minutes shorter, and if it came before literally any other Disney movie. As it stands, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure felt like it overstayed its welcome about ten minutes in, and in comparison to Coco, seems like it was tacked on at the last minute. If you’re going to see Coco in theaters, my suggestion would be to get to the theater 15 minutes late, so that you don’t have to sit through all the mediocre Frozen Christmas dreck to get to the much-better Coco.

If you’re still reading this and haven’t immediately bought a ticket to Coco, I implore you to do so. It’s funny, it’s heartwarming -- in short, it’s such a pleasure to experience. If I had thought that animation was dead, then Coco is the Día de Muertos of animation, bringing back the spirits of old animation to show them just how far their descendants have come, and the new heights that the future can reach.