Coco Lives to Entertain

Coco has a sense of humour about the afterlife. It is a place that is much like, well, life. And a 12-year-old that accidentally stumbles upon it (not to worry, no gruesome deaths here, just a tasteful curse), has to find his way back to the land of the living. Christian Tesfaye took the journey, was impressed by the skinny characters, the film's emotional plotline but could not shake that the external conflict could have been solved early had someone uttered a simple sentence. He awards 8 out of 10 stars.

Death and animated cartoons do go well together. There are good examples of this. There was Up – the Best Picture-nominated Pixar movie where the protagonist loses his wife to a disease in one of the best opening sequences of all time. There was another one in Finding Nemo, where a father has, not just his wife, but hundreds of his children except one eaten by a shark.

Perhaps the most famous death scene is in The Lion King (or was it Bambi?), where Simba loses his father, Mufasa, in a wildebeest stampede. Noted for its brutality (picture that moment where Mufasa falls to his death), the scene serves as an excellent example of how best to set up audiences for an emotional climax that is not off-putting.

Coco is one movie that gets it. It does not just have a death scene, most of the plot takes place in the afterlife.

Meet Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old who loves to sing, that is if his family will only let him. He has his great-great-grandmother to blame for that, or the husband that left her to her devices for he desperately needed to pursue a singing career. She would subsequently swear off singing or even listening to music – something that turns out to be a family tradition.

Miguel though is determined. He would even steal a ritualistic offering to the dead, which in Coco’s universe, will get you thrown into the afterlife. Fortunately for Miguel, the afterlife is not as bad as the Abrahamic religions, and every parent of a five-year-old, will have us believe.

The afterlife is a lot more like life. Material wealth is still as critical to joy and happiness, and wickedness goes unpunished. There is just one difference. Everyone is a skeleton, which does not bother Miguel as much as the fact that his dearly departed family will not bless him – the only way of getting to the land of the living – unless he agrees to abstain from music.

Thus, Miguel teams with Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), one of the dead, and who wants to visit the land of the living. Hector tries to get him to the only family member he knew liked music, his great-great-grandfather, who went on to become a famous musician. In return, Miguel will put up Hector’s photo as a form of remembrance – a prerequisite for a dead person to visit the land of the living.

The film is Lee Unkrich’s directorial outing in seven years. The last movie he directed was the immensely successful Toy Story 3 – a picturesque, comedic, thoughtful and surprisingly complex movie about moving on. He also co-directed the likes of Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc and Finding Nemo.

Toy Story 2 had some merit, but it was overshadowed by the movies that followed and preceded it. Monsters Inc had a fantastic concept, brilliant, characterisation and was well executed. But the third act felt a little too predictable.

Finding Nemo, with its matter-of-fact underwater cinematography and sad story, though, was a knockout. One of the greatest movies of all time – it deserves to stand on the same footing with other highly regarded animated films, from The Lion King and Wall-E to the more adult-themed ones such as Anomalisa and Walking Life.

Coco may not be on an equal footing with those movies, it may not be unforgettable per se, but it is no less enjoyable. It is also well plotted and very much tasteful given its subject matter. And it could not have been easy to create striking characters that have no flesh or eyebrows on their faces. Although seemingly effortless, which is to the virtue of the filmmakers, it takes subtlety and story-telling bent to make an audience care about characters that are physically akin to the monsters horror movies have been warning us about for the last half of cinema’s history.

But as much as I liked the film, I could not shake off one crucial element. Its plot is entirely predicated upon that of a misunderstanding. The film would have ended in 15 minutes had someone mentioned, let me just say to avoid spoiling the plot, a particular lady was their child. That is all it would have taken to prevent what is, thankfully, over a hundred minutes of fun.

As it has been a lacklustre year for animated movies, though, or even cinema in general, Coco is the strongest contender in this year’s Golden Globes. Other films nominated in the best-animated category are The Boss Baby, The Breadwinner, Ferdinand and Loving Vincent.

While two of these – The Boss Baby and Ferdinand – are just atrocious, the remaining two could give Coco a run for its money. Especially given Hollywood’s christening this past couple of months as a gathering environ for serial sexual abusers, the likely liberal judges of the Globes would doubtlessly seek to flaunt their left-wing leanings.

By that I mean, The Breadwinner has a good chance. It may just cost Coco, an enjoyable movie not without its flaws, the award, just as politics cost La La Land its deserved Best Picture Oscar early this year.

Published on Dec 16,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 920]



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