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Dustin Putman

Coco  (2017)
4 Stars
Directed by Lee Unkrich; co-directed by Adrian Molina.
Voice Cast: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Renee Victor, Alanna Ubach, Edward James Olmos, Alfonso Arau, Sofia Espinosa, Jaime Camil, Ana Ofelia Murguia, Luis Valdez, Selene Luna, Herbet Siguenza, Taylor Cooper, Carla Medina, Octavio Solis, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Denise Blasor, Cheech Marin, Gabriel Iglesias, John Ratzenberger.
2017 – 109 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for thematic material).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, November 9, 2017.
"Coco" is an insta-classic, a dazzling, captivatingly written adventure resonating with profundity about life and death, memory and legacy. For computer animation giant Pixar, this is one of their highest achievements, a film in which seemingly every component hits the bull's-eye. Basing a family feature around Mexico's annual Day of the Dead holiday is not entirely novel—it was previously explored in 2014's well-meaning, ultimately forgettable "The Book of Life"—but it has finally received the gloriously conceived, dramatically sound treatment it deserves. Director Lee Unkrich (2010's "Toy Story 3"), co-director/writer Adrian Molina, and co-writer Matthew Aldrich have clearly put their all into a work that feels undeniably personal for each of them. In a word, the results are magical.

12-year-old Miguel Rivera's (voice of Anthony Gonzalez) biggest passion in life is to be a musician, but within this dream is a quandary: ever since his great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife and daughter all those decades ago to pursue his own musical aspirations, the scorn family has placed a strict, generations-spanning ban on music of any kind. When Miguel's stern, set-in-her-ways Abuelita (Renee Victor) discovers this long-hidden love and his intentions to perform in their community's Dia de Muertos talent show, she forbids it. Suddenly without a guitar and refusing to bend to his grandmother's unreasonable demands, a desperate Miguel decides to sneak into the tomb of legendary late musician Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) and borrow the treasured instrument he once strummed. In doing so, he is transported to the Land of the Dead, an afterlife realm where he finally gets the chance to meet the deceased relatives he never knew. His great-great-grandmother, Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach), makes it clear he will be trapped forever unless a family member sends him back to the Land of the Living before the rise of the next day's sun, but in her doing so there is a catch: she wants Miguel to promise to never play music again. It is a life-altering agreement he is not willing to make.

"Coco" is a visual feast of extraordinary sights equaled by its bewitching story, engaging characters, fully earned emotions, and cultural reverence. The purpose of Mexico's Dia de Muertos—to pray for, remember, and pay tribute to loved ones who've passed—is brought to vivid, affecting, teachable life, a sacred celebration which connects its people and the bonds of their respective lineages and pasts. Likewise, the film's touchy themes about the process of living and dying are sensitively handled in a way that should intimately speak to all ages even as it ultimately will mean something a little different for each viewer based on his or her own familial history and experiences. If the best in cinema has the power to touch audiences on multiple levels, to offer eye-opening visions and bring a sense of newfound wonder to their souls, then "Coco" meets each of these prerequisites.

Miguel's journey, one which allows him to stand up for his beliefs and come of age all at once, is in the time-honored tradition of virtually every Disney protagonist who has walked before him. No matter, it continues to work because this experience is so very universal. Placed within the visage of a fresh setting and fantastical locations as Miguel treks through the Land of the Dead and races to return to the existence he is not finished living, his arc is given an added jolt of urgency and uniqueness. Because the screenplay is so seamlessly and cleverly designed, providing twists, revelations, and progressively tense obstacles, it is best to not give too much away. Suffice it to say, a talent show where Miguel must publicly perform for the first time, Ernesto de la Cruz's ornate, Gatsby-esque mansion in the sky, Miguel's street-dog-companion turned-spirit-animal Dante, and a climactic race against the clock at the "Sunrise Spectacular" concert all play pivotal parts in the action. Aiding Miguel in his attempt to track down a family member who may be able to send him home is Hector (Gael García Bernal), a slippery Land of the Dead resident who hopes to also cross over by helping the boy. The longer Hector must wait, the more likely he is to vanish for good—something which occurs when there is no longer anyone among the living who remembers him or her.

"Coco" opens with an inspired prologue told through a series of cut-tissue banners in motion, and this resourceful creativity continues throughout its absorbing 109-minute running time. Deepening as it goes, capable of surprising even when the viewer starts to put together where the plot might be headed, the picture shoots itself squarely into one's heart. It's good-humored and poignant, miraculous and thrilling, sumptuous and impeccably crafted. The animation is top-of-the-line, every fine detail a vital piece of the filmmakers' loving tapestry. The music is frequently exhilarating, from Michael Giacchino's (2016's "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story") lush, rousing, folksy compositions to the stirring original songs written by Germaine Franco, Adrian Molina, and "Frozen" duo Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. The third act is as suspenseful as the strongest thrillers, the characters' fates all the more important because they have grown to mean so much to the watcher. And then comes the perfect denouement, bringing both closure and new beginnings to a tale about the importance of following one's path in life and the irreplaceability of family. The storied existence of Miguel's oldest living relative, his great-grandmother Mamá Coco, is written in her piercing eyes and every last wrinkle which lines her beautiful face. Now, in the twilight of her days, her body has withered and her mind has begun to fade. Certain chains to her past, however, can never be broken. They are a part of her, just as Coco is a part of Miguel's, and our own are a part of us. Graceful, bittersweet and altogether astonishing, "Coco" understands with utmost clarity what it means to be human.
© 2017 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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