Coco (Unkrich & Molina; 2017)

Pixar’s latest Coco is the story of Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a Mexican boy who wants to be a musician but was born into a family of music-hating cobblers.   His long dead idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) always told people that they needed to seize their moment, but when Miguel decides to do just that by showing what a great musician he is in front of everybody at a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival he instead becomes cursed and is sent to the Land of the Dead himself alongside a stray dog named Dante.

Since Toy Story in 1995, Pixar Studios have been the masters of bringing us formulaic but hilarious and heartwarming family entertainment with an emphasis on the family.  The standard Pixar story is one we’ve become incredibly familiar with – fish out of water characters are forced into and ultimately embrace something outside of their normal comfort zone and learn a lesson which makes them a better part of their community and a happier person – and, they have done it so well over and over again that except for a handful of missteps they are some of the most beloved family films ever put to screen.  They always manage to skew the familiar just enough that our brains don’t ever have to put too much effort into being entertained, but we also manage to come away with what seems like a new, original perspective every time.

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Coco is quintessential Pixar.  By using Mexican folklore, and in particular their holiday and lore surrounding the afterlife, they give us the framework needed to make the familiar family-oriented story something new as well as finally giving Hispanic culture a much needed big budget major release representation.  The ties between familial generations and a passion for music give us the story element we need to relate to, and the spirit guides, flower petal bridges, and rules of the great beyond are what give Coco its spectacle and wonder.

The animation on display in Coco is not the best we’ve seen from the studio, but it is impressive in how much thought the animators put into the details of the afterlife and its color palette is at times a true wonder.  Having to work with primarily skeletal figures for the major characters, however, does tend to hamstring variety as when every character is a skeleton with eyeballs, the only real differentiating factors are height and clothing.  This makes for an animated film in which the best animation is often in the background as that is where the artists can truly let their creativity loose.

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Coco‘s script is a heartwarming one, but aside from a neat bit of writing prestidigitation in which they change the film’s message part way through, it is all quite predictable.  It’s a fantastic script for children who may not have seen these particular plot twists over and over again and therefore will actually be surprised, but the adults taking the kids to the movie will have to rely more on the humor and charm of the movie over its story for their entertainment value.

Final verdict:  This review is a little shorter than normal because Coco is a Pixar movie through and through and most already know the drill.  You’ve seen the story over and over before, but the Pixar variations on the theme are so well handled per their usual craftsmanship that you can overlook and possibly even enjoy the film more despite that.  Coco will make you laugh, cry, and smile and it will make you do all three exactly when they want you to.  Sure, it’s a manipulative film, all Pixar films are, but with master manipulators like these at the helm it’s a pleasure to allow them to do so.

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P.S. The short film before Coco, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, was merely so-so.  More an advertisement for the upcoming Frozen 2 than anything else, it really didn’t have the usual low key pizzazz the Pixar opener’s usually do.  But, it does have excellent animation and Idina Menzel’s gorgeous vocals, so it gets at least a bit of a pass.  You have to watch it to get to the main event, anyway, so may as well enjoy it.

Sing (Lourdelet and Jennings; 2016)

Matthew McConaughey voices Buster Moon, a koala bear who owns the local theater and is doing what he can to return it to a state of profitability and respect.  Reese Witherspoon is a pig housewife who loves her family but often feels unappreciated.   Seth MacFarlaine voices Mike, a classically trained arrogant mouse who could use some lessons in humility. Scarlett Johannson is Ash, a teenage porcupine in a band with her boyfriend who disrespects her.  John C. Reilly is Eddie, Buster’s closest friend who wants to make an identity for himself instead of the one laid out before him by his rich family.    Taron Egerton is a gorilla whose father is a bank robber by trade, and Taron doesn’t want to follow in his footsteps. Tori Kelley plays Meena, a shy teenage elephant whose family wants her to realize that she is a talented person who deserves to be noticed.  All of these people meet when Buster decides the best way to revive his theater is through a live singing competition in which all these characters take part.  Does that sound like a lot?  Perhaps too much for a single movie to take on and do justice?  It absolutely is.

That isn’t even all the characters, stars, and story lines involved in this incredibly overstuffed animated feature which at its heart is really just an excuse for big name stars to sing some pop songs and make an easy paycheck.  Sing is the latest from Illumination, the company that has given us the Despicable Me films and The Secret Life of Pets from earlier this year.  Much like those films, Sing is an animated film which is fine for children, but nothing more than fine, and can entertain adults well enough that they won’t regret bringing their kids to the theater, but not so well that they don’t realize the entire length of the film they could be doing something much better with their time.

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Such as napping.

As someone who has been crusading against animation as seen as being purely for children for some time now, I still realize that there is nothing at all wrong with cartoons made with children as the primary audience, however, Sing is a film with an arrogrant crooner, a frazzled housewife with 25 children, bank robbers, and loan sharks as main characters.  It’s lessons are practically non-existent except to say such light themes as “you shouldn’t rob banks” or “mom’s can occasionally be cool”.  Add to that the fact that much of the humor is aimed squarely at adults, and you have a movie too simple and slight for an adult audience, but with characters and situations children won’t really get, and it’s impossible to tell who this movie is for other than people who just want to watch animals with celebrity voices sing overplayed and slight pop songs.

The animation is bright and colorful, another clue that the primary audience of the film is the younger crowd, and does definitely have a high level of charm.  There isn’t much remarkable about the visual style outside of this, however, as it has nowhere near the attention to detail seen in Zootopia, the creativity and artistry of Kubo and the Two Strings, nor the incredible talent on display in Moana.  It’s obvious this isn’t the animators first film, but it is still incredibly generic and not particularly memorable.

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The animators thought long and hard about each individual character, coming up with physical quirks and identifying characteristics for even the most minor of extras.

Sing is a movie that’s hard to recommend as anything other than something to keep your kids busy for a while or as background noise while you work on something which demands more of your attention.  There are too many stories going on for any to earn any level of even minor investment, lessons, themes, and allegory are non-existent, the characters are as generic as they can possibly be as is the plot, and the animation is eye catching, but little else.  The only thing which will entertain you is the music and the charm, both of which Sing does have in abundance, but while those can be enough to get a smile here and there, it’s not nearly enough to make this a movie worth visiting more than once, and even that once on Netflix or the like.

Rating:  4.0 out of 10

Moana (Clements, Hall, Musker, and Williams; 2016)

Disney gives us its first Polynesian princess in the movie named for her, Moana, and quite the charming princess she is.  We first see her as a precocious infant, not afraid of the scary stories her grandmother tells the clan’s children, wanting to explore everywhere she can, and doing whatever she must to help others even at her own expense, even when she’s not old enough to be out of diapers, or swaddling clothes in this case.  This is typical of the modern era Disney princess, and while I’m among the many out there who are very glad to see that the modern Disney princess is very much a hero in her own right and doesn’t need a prince to rescue her, Moana shows that this formula is already starting to wear at least a little thin, and they really need to begin watching out for complacency in their story telling.

The major flaws in Moana, and what keeps it from being amongst the very best of this year’s crop of excellent animated features, are its very formulaic story telling technique, its very limited cast of characters, and its overly repetitive sense of humor.  The flaws really all go together, and negatively play off of one another.  The film really has only two major characters of any note, Moana herself (voice acted by Auli’i Cravalho) and the Hawaiian demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson).  Moana’s parents and grandmother do appear toward the beginning of the film and various villains are scattered here and there throughout, but the vast majority of the time we spend with these two and only these two.  This really limits the types of interaction which can be had, and while their relationship does, of course, develop and grow throughout the film, that is the whole point of the movie, it does so using the same methods over and over.  They argue about the same things again and again, find themselves dealing with obstacle the same way over and over, and while I love self referential humor perhaps a bit too much, they make so many jokes referencing the fact that they are animated characters singing to each other in yet another Disney princess movie that at a certain point I just wanted to yell at the screen, “Enough already!”

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We’re full time parents, full time chieftans, and full time formulaic stereotypes.

But, while the plot and humor in Moana may be far too formulaic and forced, the Polynesian setting and mythology of the movie makes for incredibly new and original settings and situations as well as some of the most glamorous animation to hit the screen in this, or any other, year, really rivaled only by Kubo and the Two Strings in how utterly beautiful it is.  Part of me wants to list some of the feats Moana and Maui have to perform throughout their heroes’ quest just to demonstrate how unusual and fascinating they are, but that would spoil one of the best parts of the film.  The feats are really just episodic events that don’t play into each other for the most part, and really could be shown to happen in any order whatsoever, but that can be forgiven as it seems the film’s authors are trying to give us as much Polynesian mythology as they possibly can in a limited amount of time, and the results are a lot of fun and a wonder to look at.

While they don’t make a big deal of it in their advertising, Moana is a musical.  I’m guessing the reason Disney doesn’t showcase this element of the movie in the marketing is because the music on display here is nothing particularly noteworthy.  Auli’i has more songs than anyone else in the film, and she is an excellent singer, it’s just that she is given very mundane, derivative music to work with.  Dwayne Johnson has perhaps the most catchy song in the film, and he was a far better singer than I ever would have expected, but a day after my viewing and I already am having a hard time remembering much of his song outside the chorus and lyrics.  Much like everything else in the film, the music is put together with talent, it’s just not anything we haven’t heard before time and time again.

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Just look at this little dude!  Look at him!

Moana is a film that, in a way, really deserves different critiques for different audiences.  This is a film that absolutely can be enjoyed by all ages, there was a very little girl who seemed to be just learning to speak and looked to be of Ploynesian descent who sat with her family directly behind me for my viewing of the film, and while she was very talkative leading up to the film, she was absolutely silent the entire time until the very end when she erupted in applause and cheers.  When I was leaving the theater I saw her posing for her parents with a cutout stand of Moana, a look of joy and excitement on her face that let me know this was one of those movies she will remember fondly for her entire life.  For older children, a grand time will still be had, and I have no doubt they will be bugging their parents for the Blu-Ray one day so they can watch it over and over again.  As for the adults in the audience, you will be entertained, particularly by the awe-inspriring animation, but you will recognize the story as one you’ve seen over and over again, it’s just the trappings that are new this time around, but those trappings are pretty damn neat, neat enough that you can forgive, if not entirely overlook, the films pretty large problems.

Rating:  6.5 out of 10