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MOVIE REVIEW: Pixar’s ‘Coco’ has rocky start, but ultimately tells compelling story


By Mark Meszoros, mmeszoros@news-herald.com, @MarkMeszoros on Twitter

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

When you strip everything else away, “Coco” is about family.

A big Mexican family.

A big Mexican family with living — and dead — members to meet and learn.

The latest release from Disney-owned Pixar Animation Studios early on can feel like all the seasons of “Game of Thrones” in terms of character count. Forgive yourself if, initially, you find you’re confusing Abuelita and Mama Imelda or Papa and Papa Julio.

Fortunately, it will matter little if you never match each character with his or her name. After a rough beginning, “Coco” recovers to deliver an emotionally satisfying story when the whole convoluted thing is done.

At its core, “Coco” is a celebration of music and Mexican culture. It is set around Dia de los Muertos, aka Day of the Dead, with roots in indigenous culture when family members pray for and remember others who have died.

It revolves around a boy, Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), who dreams of a career in music, following in the footsteps of Ernesto de la Cruz. De la Cruz, we are told, was the most famous musician in the history of Mexico. There’s only one problem: Music is not a happy subject in his family for reasons that, eventually, will become clear.

“I think we’re the only family in Mexico who hates music,” Miguel laments.

Still, he doesn’t want to devote his life to the family shoemaking business and, as discreetly as he can, goes about pursuing his dream, which begins at a local musical hotspot.

“I’m going to play Mariachi Plaza if it kills me,” he proclaims, in what would seem a very heavy-handed line.

Through a series of unfortunate events, including an ugly falling out with his family, Miguel ventures to the land of the dead, where he meets, among other family members, revered matriarch Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach). He will need her blessing to return home — something she will give only if he promises to give up music.

So he turns to a stranger, Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who is desperate to make a similar journey, for help. Theirs is a rocky alliance, at least at first, each frustrating the other on a regular basis.

Miguel also meets his idol, the deceased de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who remains quite famous in the land of the dead and takes an instant shine to the youngster. However, Miguel befriending the musician won’t make it any easier for him to get home.

Bratt (“The Infiltrator”) provides the best performance in “Coco,” but that’s not really saying that much. Both Bernal (“Y Tu Mamá También”) and Gonzalez, who has several TV credits as an actor and singer, are fine but not particularly memorable.

The same, too, goes for the songs of “Coco,” which is highly disappointing considering the importance placed on music in the story. However, they do succeed, as the movie does as a whole, in bringing a bit of Mexican culture to a mass audience. Some traditional Mexican songs are mixed with original compositions, which is nice.

Not surprising in any way, where “Coco” shines is its visuals, many of them incredibly detailed. You would expect nothing less from the artists from Pixar, but their work impresses nonetheless.

The story and script are credited to Matthew Aldrich, Adrian Molina, Jason Katz (story only) and Lee Unkrich (story only), who also directs. Their work could be tighter, but there is plenty of fun to be had along the way. For instance, a selfie joke in the land of the dead is really clever.

By the end, you may be surprised to find how emotionally invested in the story you’ve become. Unkrich, who is from Chagrin Falls and spent some early years acting in productions at the Cleveland Play House, saves his best button-pushing for the climax of “Coco.” However predictable it may be, the ending — which involves the film’s namesake, Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia) is quite touching.

A couple of off notes here or there shouldn’t keep you from seeing “Coco.”

“Coco”

In theaters: Nov. 22.

Rated: PG for thematic elements.

Runtime: 1 hour, 49 minutes.

Stars (of four): 2.5.