Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Miguel and the six strings


Have Pixar's days of greatness passed?  Perhaps, perhaps not, but Coco doesn't push anything forward.  It doesn't even push anything sideways.  That leaves one direction to go, and that's the one it takes.

Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Written by Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich, Lee Unkrich, and Adrian Molina
With Anthony Gonzalez (Miguel), Gael Garcia Bernal (Hector), Alanna Ubach (Imelda), Renee Victor (Elena), and Benjamin Bratt (Ernesto de la Cruz)

Spoiler alert: mild

I like Pixar's newest effort Coco just fine, I guess, though I don't like it half as much as most people seem to, between its sterling reviews, its substantial American box office, and (let's not forget) its position as the single highest-grossing movie of all time in Mexico.  They got to see Coco almost a month before we did, taking advantage of the film's Dia de Muertos bona fides, instead of coming out a month later, like a Christmas movie accidentally dumped in January.

Well, I'll easily admit that I probably went into it with a little bit of a bad attitude, because it sure as hell doesn't seem like AMC Theaters and Disney itself—Pixar's owner and distributor—wanted me (or anybody else) to go into it with anything but a bad attitude.  Oh, you know where this is going: on top of nigh-on twenty minutes' worth of previews for a bunch of off-brand animated films coming out over the next couple of months, all of which looked terrible and all of which featured at least two feces jokes per two-minute trailer, Coco is also preceded by a "short" film that has already gained enormous infamy across the whole wide world, "Olaf's Frozen Adventure."  And if anything could possibly derail Disney's miscalculated plans to revisit their billion-dollar-baby Frozen with a sequel, then it would indeed be this bucket of ice-cold piss that did it.

Okay, this does overestimate exactly how bad it is (though the title itself already presages some kind of disaster); but it is nonetheless very bad, and I don't think I've been rendered quite so anxious by anything else in a theater this year.  This "short" just keeps going, and every time you think it might be wrapping up, it zig-zags right into another narrative filip, every last one of which feels like it was put there specifically to fuck with you—and when it finally, finally ends, you will look at your phone to check the time, whereupon you shall be astonished to discover it was only on the screen for 21 minutes.  I would've happily bet a hundred bucks it was 45.  Originally intended as a child-silencing TV special for ABC Family, a work's production history has never been more clear while you were watching it.  Incidentally, annoyed Mexican audiences got "Adventure" pulled within days.  What made Disney think Norteamericanos would like it any better?

The story, if you care, concerns Olaf the Snowman's quest to catalog all the myriad holiday traditions of Arendelle's population, in order to find one to give to Anna and Elsa, who have become sad this Yuletide because, after all, they are orphans who were locked in their respective rooms for most of their respective childhoods and therefore never had the chance to develop any traditions of their own.  I suppose the nicest thing about "Adventure"  is that the generic "holiday" part means we get to learn that Elsa's medieval European kingdom hasn't gone all-in for pogroms yet.  Meanwhile, the best thing about it is a weird sequence where the animation takes on the form of blocky figures upon a texture approximating that of woolen yarn, like a sweater; and this is very moderately cool.  But, otherwise, it's precious little more than Josh Gad in snowman form, dashing around the realm, cracking wise in Olaf's inimitable manner, with a ratio of about one good joke to every two bad ones.  What isn't that, is just Anna and Elsa, flattened as much as they could possibly be flattened (and they are not exactly deep characters to start out with), constantly singing the kind of bland-ass forgettable songs that, frankly, makes up the vast bulk of all non-"Let It Go" Frozen-related music, all whilst being perhaps even more annoying than their highly-annoying snowy golem.  At least Olaf's being active.  The siblings aren't doing anything but wallowing in their terrifically-contrived holiday rut.

Coco, on the other hand, is much more pleasant—if, perhaps, not as much fun to discuss.  I don't know exactly what to say about it, really, except that it's easily the least-ambitious film Pixar has ever made.  (When making this statement, I am of course excluding the Cars trilogy; we all know they don't count.)  "Least-ambitious" isn't the same as "the worst," though it is certainly below average; what "least-ambitious" means is that it doesn't try anything new, or do anything hard, or even significantly impress, and while that's maybe unfair, you still expect Pixar films to be memorable for something, either on account of their usual emotional intensity, or (just as likely) the immense, top-of-the-art-form craft of their animation and design. 

I mean, Inside Out had its unique character design and detailed internal world, and even if its third act proved it was probably too-detailed, turning entirely upon the physicality of a mental space, you still got something meaningful out of its exploration of childhood depression; Finding Dory had its brutal sadnesses, its exquisite aquatic lighting, and Hank, the seven-limbed color-changing cephalopod and Pixar's best creation since the turn of the century; Monsters University had its creatures and its lighting and that thunderbolt of horror-movie photorealism in its climax, in addition to one stunningly mature message about how not everybody gets to live their dreams.  Goodness, even Pixar's actual worsts, Brave and The Good Dinosaur, still had "groundbreaking hair animation" and "unnervingly photorealistic backgrounds" to fall back on, once their stories collapsed into triteness and crap.  But now we have Coco, and Coco is a conventional kid's movie in practically every way it could be.  It doesn't even represent an especially sturdy brand of "conventional," at that, and even once we turn to the pure aesthetic of the thing, still the best I can say is that it's a technically-adept iteration of exactly what I already said, back twenty years ago, when I started this review: just fine.

So the story Coco deals with is the generational melodrama of the Rivera family, and, as we learn in a prologue (the most exciting thing in the whole movie, formally, employing a panoply of multicolored, choppily-animated papeles picados as its medium), sometime in the distant past, Imelda, the long-dead matriarch of the Riveras, was abandoned by her spouse along with their child, in favor of his career as a traveling musician.  Imelda did not spend her life wasting away, however; she threw her energy instead into a renowned shoe factory.  But there was a cost to the Riveras' success: Imelda may not have wept, but she cherished her fury for the guitarrista who'd scorned her.  And so, forever more, there would be no music allowed in the Rivera household.  It was never to be listened to.  It surely was never to be made.

Many years later, enter Miguel, and, obviously, Miguel's passion lie not in footwear, but in song.  He worships the greatest of all musicians, the late Ernesto de la Cruz, and yearns to play as his hero did before him; Miguel gets his chance during the Dia de Muertos celebration.  But his hard-nosed grandmother, Elena, having succeeded to the head of the Rivera family in the senescence of her own mother, Coco, breaks his guitar upon the ground.  In a fit of awkwardness, Miguel smashes up his family ofrenda in return—but in the process, he discovers photographic evidence that he's not just de la Cruz' biggest fan, he's quite probably the great man's heir.  His yearning redoubled, Miguel absconds to the tomb of de la Cruz to seize his birthright, the man's fabled skull guitar.  But Dia de Muertos is a day for giving to the dead, not taking—and Miguel's transgression sends him screaming to the other side.

Okay, a guitar that kills you is pretty metal.

Now trapped in the Land of the Dead, Miguel finds out that his deceased family, still led by Imelda's spirit, are surely no more forgiving of his musical dreams, and won't send him back unless he agrees to give them up.  Unwilling, Miguel flees.  With the assistance of Hector, a ramshackle hobo ghost half on his way to being forgotten in the living world, and hence nonexistent even in the hereafter, Miguel embarks upon a quest to find the soul of de la Cruz himself, to ask for his blessing instead.  With it, he'll go back to the land of the living—if he gets it before the sun rises, anyway, because otherwise Miguel will simply remain here, as dead as anyone else.

So far, so fabulistic, and there are very few things wrong with Coco, as opposed to the film simply doing practically everything at the lowest possible implementation of "right."  (Though even then, it doesn't do everything right: consider Coco's hoary depiction of the Bureaucracy of the Dead, which is just tired enough, and gets enough screentime, that it has to count as actively obnoxious.)

And so Coco runs through its scenario somewhat lazily, without any special verve to any of it: there's the dog that may or may not be Miguel's spirit animal; the twists that are so heavily-foreshadowed I wonder if the under-tens still won't be able to get ahead of at least the first one; the expected jokes, which are mostly good, plus (if I must) a decent Frieda Kahlo reference; the music, in what amounts to a musical about music, and which is arranged and presented kind of indifferently; and, above all, the surprisingly shiftless visualization of the Land of the Dead.  The bridge of petals is a nice touch, but, otherwise, it looks like someone thought it was sufficient to slap a melange of multicolored lights onto the backdrops from that Total Recall remake, coat it in processor-intensive atmospheric diffusion effects, and call it a day.  It does absolutely no justice to the morbid intricacy of actual calaveras art.

The characters themselves, meanwhile, are only as interesting as their last quip: besides the hidebound hero's journey Miguel's on, there's nothing terribly special about the look of the living in this film—the living here being just one more example of latterday CGI cartooning, all of them done up with that slightly-exaggerated design most cartoons use, even if (by virtue of having been made inside of Pixar computers) they do happen to be rendered with great loving detail.  Somehow, though, the dead might be less interesting: while it's obviously pretty hard to screw up Dia de Muertos-style skeleton-people to the point they aren't interesting at all, it's fairly apparent that Pixar was stymied on precisely how to design and animate the ghosts of their Mexican underworld.

The problem, I think, is in their faces (they look completely indistinguishable from regular old stretch-and-squash animated human heads, only now they have calaveras makeup on and float overtop telekinetic skeletons).  And it's especially in their eyes: big, normal, human jelly eyes.  The plot sort-of demands this—Miguel's sojourn through the Land of the Dead requires him to blend in, and his bright living peepers would be kind of a giveaway otherwise—but it sharply limits how uncanny Hector and the rest can look.  As if to overcompensate, Coco throws its funny cartoon skeleton mechanics in your face for a solid hour instead, with a great many little setpieces that rely upon the dead breaking apart and coming harmlessly back together.  That's all well-and-good (there is also a skeletal nudity joke that is both eye-rolling and priceless), but this myth-inspired fantasy never ups its ante much.  Frankly, you could remove the magic, set this in reality, and just barely have to change the script.

Ultimately, one almost wonders if Coco is just banking on the material itself being new—which, of course, it isn't.  Other than throwing more money and experience into its animation, it's doing almost nothing that The Book of Life didn't already do better back in 2014, and that's without even getting into the specifics of how much Book of Life did that Coco doesn't do at all.  (If I said "I love that cartoon about the disowned musician who travels to the Land of the Dead, where he has an adventure and earns the respect of his family," you could not know which film I was talking about; but whereas this sums up Coco extremely well, it's an awfully narrow synopsis of Book of Life, which had godly wagers and a romance and a lot more mystical swashbuckling, too.  The only way Coco compares favorably, besides its technical qualities—and I mean that as distinct from its design qualities—is that Coco is more earnest, and less replete with stupid, needling gags.)

Coco deserves mild plaudits, anyway, for at least making its final villain genuinely pretty nasty (and for semi-accidentally making its afterlife so unnervingly amoral), but it is rare to see a Pixar movie not deliver on the studio's usual promise of deeper emotions than "the desire to boo the bad man" or "the sense of unfairness you get from belatedly realizing that, according to Coco, Hitler gets to live forever."  Instead, everything here is resolved too neatly (and too quickly) to truly strike the heart.  Yes,  Coco almost gets to where it needs to go in the very, very end: I kind of felt like something had been accomplished, when that last song plays itself into the credits.  But then, the things that do get accomplished have practically nothing to do with Miguel; and even these accomplishments involve some really questionable storytelling, including a piece of visual shorthand right at the tail end that's nothing but condescending garbage.

Still: there's little else to actually despise about Coco—and a fair amount to enjoy, on the basic level of its mythological adventure.  If you like cartoons about kids believing in themselves, go see it if you want.  Make plans to arrive half an hour late, sure, but see it.  Just don't expect a masterpiece.  In fact, don't expect much of anything.

Score, "Olaf's Frozen Adventure": 3/10
Score, Coco: 6/10


  1. I enjoyed Coco quite a bit more than you did, but it's certainly a weaker entry in the Pixar canon. I think, considering the musical approach it takes, that it's easier to approach it as a DISNEY film rather than a Pixar one.

    And as a Disney film it's pretty great! It's certainly better than Olaf's frozen diarrhea nightmare, and a far more consistent musical than Frozen itself. Plus, I'm a sucker for Dia de los Muertos folklore and design and Gael Garcia Bernal.

    Plus, I love Pedro Almodóvar, and the graveyard scenes reminded me of Volver, which is always a great place to be for me. So maybe Coco isn't as good as its sphere of influences, but what a sphere though.

    1. You know, I was thinking about the first thing you said, and really, over the past eight years, Disney and Pixar have been at least par, and I'd say that WDAS probably has a slight but noticeable edge, in terms of overall quality. Hell, Disney has possibly evinced more formal ambition than their corporate sibling, certainly ambitions pointed in better directions. (I mean, sure, Brave developed the prerequisite technology; but "hair animation" is so far down on the list of awesome things Moana does that I didn't mention it even in a 3400 word review.)

      On the other hand, both studios have apparently decided to throw themselves into a hole of not-giving-a-shit: Toy Story 4! Ralph Wrecks the Internet! Incredibles 2! Frozen 2! Jesus H. Christ! And then WDAS canceled Gigantic, the one single thing I was actually looking forward to on either of their respective schedules.