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"Coco" understands what it means to not belong

"Coco" understands what it means to not belong

Rating: ****1/2

A great many things make “Coco” the best non-sequel Pixar film since “Wall-E.” One of them is the frank way the film handles traditionally adult themes that are central to the plot. Death, betrayal, murder and loyalty are roots of the story in the 19th feature out of the Emeryville studio. More importantly, “Coco” asks adult members of a family to budge — something not done regularly enough in any family, big or small.

Other themes play at the margins. When Miguel easily crosses over to the land of the dead by taking something that doesn’t belong to him, it highlights the class structure between two worlds. Even in the Land of the Dead there’s a caste system. Some may cross over worry free, while other’s try to trick and cheat their way over. Has anyone made their way to the Land of the Living illegally? Does the Land of the Living have ICE? 

Co-directors Lee Unkrich and Andrew Molina don’t tackle this issue much deeper. If there’s a true criticism to make of the film, which is packed with Hispanic talent, it’s that Unkrich is involved at all. No matter how many journeys of self-discovery you go on, Pixar whiffed on an excellent opportunity to release its first film with a person of color at the helm. Instead, another “co-director” tag is slapped on. That’s disappointing for a studio that fancies itself progressive, even if it isn’t surprising. 

We take for granted a lot of what Pixar does exceptionally well. This may be Pixar’s most beautiful film by default. The colors dazzle, the camera work is engaging and the music is enchanting. The team assembled one of the best voice casts to date, with Gael-Garcia Bernal turning in a phenomenal performance alongside newcomer Anthony Gonzalez. Benjamin Bratt also provides a scene-stealing turn as the larger-than life Ernesto De La Cruz. 

In a year where we’ve seen a couple of misfit-coming-of-age-stories (and I just wrote about them), “Coco” is decidedly different. Miguel doesn’t really want to be different for the sake of it. He just wants to be part of his family while also being himself. That, in my book, doesn’t seem to be such a terrible thing, and it also can play as a great stand in. Miguel represents whatever you want, which I imagine is kind of the idea. 

The story won’t shock anyone who has gone to see enough films, but that’s not really what you signed up for. You came to experience something fun, something powerful and something that will make you feel something. “Coco” delivers on all fronts because Pixar, perhaps better than any group of filmmakers, gets how people work. There’s something special about that, isn’t there? In a world where it seems that power is lost every day, it’s nice to go to the movies and feel like somebody, somewhere, gets us. 

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