Tuesday 16 January 2018

Buttons and bones: "Coco"

It is getting as hard for animations to find room of their own as it is to find space in our cemeteries. Possibly it's for the best that Pixar have elected to release Coco while Guillermo del Toro is busy touring The Shape of Water on the awards circuit, since the company's latest bears an actionable resemblance to The Book of Life, the Fox-backed digimation del Toro produced for Jorge Gutierrez as recently as 2014. Here is the studio's own take on Mexico's Dia de Muertos legend - overlapping with its predecessor much as A Bug's Life once overlapped with DreamWorks' Antz - and a film that might once have raised the question of cultural appropriation, before Disney began its weekly in-house sensitivity seminars. Everything from Coco's choice of voice artists and behind-the-scenes personnel to the subtly roseate quality of light as the sun sets upon its onscreen barrios has clearly been thought long and hard about, replayed and revised; if what we're watching looks in so many ways familiar, we cannot deny the sensation we've been placed for the duration in the safest of safe hands.

We might even argue that Coco constitutes the company's first coming-out drama. Our hero Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is a pre-teen born into a family of cobblers and expected to take up the bradawl himself, yet he has music in his DNA - a legacy attributed to his great-great-grandfather Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a troubadour and sometime matinee idol whose name remains unspoken in Miguel's household, a consequence of his having jilted the kid's great-great-grandmother, the still-extant Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), while she was with child. Soon, Miguel finds himself even more of an outcast. While attempting to liberate Ernesto's trademark pearl guitar from a crypt during the Night of the Dead, he passes over into the underworld, and has until daybreak to resolve his tangled heritage and get back home. This graveyard shift will involve the assistance of bony chancer Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) and a stray dog called Dante (geddit?), who can sniff out ghosts but curiously has no appetite for these skeletons' bones; it's as though Tim Burton's ghoulish stopmotions had been remodelled as bright, shiny 21st century product.

Even without these illustrious reference points, it would be Coco's curse - and the curse of all recent Pixar films - to be set against Inside Out, the company's great comeback-masterstroke of 2015, and an animation so intrinsically original it left one only thinking of itself. Here, the directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina adhere to the same kind of quest narrative that has powered 90% of recent kids' animations, hotfooting from one admittedly lively, detailed location to the next: a bridge covered in iridescent petals that connects the Land of the Dead to the wider world, a workshop for skeletal bohemians, presided over by a Frida Kahlo-styled performance artist, another animated talent show, during which Miguel finds his voice. The film's own artistry is never in doubt. With her fine wrinkles and slumped posture, Mama Coco makes a super-annuated sister to Up's Carl Fredricksen; Miguel's own skin grows more translucent the further he ventures into the underworld, mirroring the photo Marty McFly clutches in Back to the Future; while the screen around him swirls with so-called spirit animals, vivid hybrids with glowing flecks in their fur.

Yet for at least two-thirds of Coco's running time, the plotting underpinning these flourishes feels merely functional, rather than especially inspired: Miguel is here, then there, and then has to follow the right instructions to get back here in one piece. There is, granted, something appreciably meta in the way Unkrich and Molina eventually write appropriation into their own narrative: a song first written as a sincere forget-me-not but seized upon as a gaudy showstopper has to be reclaimed for good in a finale guaranteed to wrench a tear or two from the sentient viewer. If Coco isn't likely to hold up as primo Pixar - that it's a dead-cert for this year's animation Oscar can surely be attributed to a lack of obvious competition in the field over the past twelve months - it does stand as an example of a company reaching into other cultures for more resonant reasons than expanding its audience share, and these final reels have a certain tried-and-tested quality about them that older viewers will likely find reassuring. As the characters in Inside Out would understand, sometimes a film pushes the right buttons in the correct order, and an emotion of sorts is produced. 

Coco opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday. 

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