Movie Review ~ Coco


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Aspiring musician Miguel, confronted with his family’s ancestral ban on music, enters the Land of the Dead to work out the mystery.

Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Gael García Bernal, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Renee Victor, Jaime Camil

Director: Lee Unkrich

Rated: PG

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: There was time when Disney/Pixar had the market cornered on movies that hit you with enough emotional force that tears were inevitable.  Often they were happy tears but every now and then they’d find a way to trigger the kind of ugly cry that made audiences glad the lights didn’t come on right when the credits rolled. With the advent of 3D technology being used in their films, we then had another way to hide our red eyes as we shuffled toward the exit and our cars.

Over the past decade Pixar has lost a little bit of that luster producing not fully satisfying sequels to proven franchises.  They looked great and were amusing, sure, but something was missing…there wasn’t the magnitude of honest heart and soul the studio was known for.  Add to that live-action movies and rival animation studios locking into that coveted emotional sweet spot and Pixar started to become one of the gang instead of their leader.

Now along comes Coco.

I didn’t know what to expect from Pixar’s latest release, an original tale of a boy in Mexico struggling with accepting his family and having them understand him too.  Early previews didn’t give much in the way of plot but they sure got tongues wagging with its spectacular animation and the promise of something inventive. not just another rehashed sequel (Monsters University).  Could this be the spark that re-ignited the Pixar fire?  And would audiences make time for something that might be out of their cultural comfort zone?

Young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez, who also has a sweet singing voice) narrates our tale and through a creative prologue catches us up on his family history.  His great great grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband, leaving her to raise their daughter alone.  Banishing all forms of music from her descendants, she starts a successful shoe business that is passed down from generation to generation.  In present day, though he knows its forbidden, Miguel dreams of becoming a famous musician like his idol, matinee star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt, Doctor Strange).  Though de la Cruz perished onstage in an unfortunate scenery malfunction, his memory lives on in movie appearances Miguel replays in a secret hiding place where he can play his guitar along with his hero.

When a talent contest is announced to take place in conjunction with Dia de los Muertos (the three-day celebration in October that’s a staple of Mexican culture), Miguel chooses to emulate de la Cruz and ‘seize the moment’, but when his family gets wind of his plot his dreams are crushed.  It’s when he breaks into the mausoleum of de la Cruz and strums his famed guitar that Miguel becomes enmeshed in a family curse he’ll need de la Cruz’s help to break.  Meeting up with his relatives that have long since passed and teaming up with a fast-talking hobo (Gael García Bernal, Rosewater) to find de la Cruz, Miguel embarks on a journey of discovery to get back to the Land of the Living before the sun rises.

The story, co-written by director Lee Unkrich (Inside Out) is full of colorful characters and creative endeavors.  There’s a bit of a mystery to solve and it gets more interesting as the film goes along and Miguel learns more about his family.  Parents should heed the PG rating because there are some images/ideas that may frighten younger children but kids that can sit through its rather long running time should be quite enthralled.  I was pretty mesmerized from the word go and marveled at how intricate the plot becomes, especially when it threw in Frida Kahlo and other references to Mexican history.

Speaking of detail, the animation here is just outstanding.  The background designs are super and the fine details on each of the skeletal faces of the inhabitants of the Land of the Dead are unique and serve to soften what could be a scary sight.  There’s wonderful music pulsating through the film (some from the team behind Frozen) and a recurring musical theme is put to good use, especially in the final 1/3 when Unkrich amps up the emotion and carefully (if shamelessly) goes for the jugular.

For a film that takes place mostly in the Land of the Dead, there’s an abundance of life and joy on display.  It signals that Pixar is listening to audiences and critics that wanted the studio to get back to what made them so special in the first place: telling original stories that touched us on more than a simply entertaining level.  Coco represents a high-water mark for the studio, arguably one of their best films so far.  In addition to its dazzling animation that uses every color known to the human eye it has a strong story about family and finding one’s place in your lineage.  It pulls very few punches and will likely inspire some discussion afterward for parents to have with their children. Make sure to stay until the end, the final image that serves as a thank you from the filmmakers is the cherry on top of an already personal-feeling experience.  Also…major props for directing audiences to their local libraries to study up on the cultural events depicted in the film.

Movie Review ~ Despicable Me 2

despicable_me_two_ver7

The Facts:

Synopsis: Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to help deal with a powerful new super criminal.

Stars: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Russell Brand, Steve Coogan, Ken Jeong, Benjamin Bratt

Director: Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin

Rated: PG

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It’s unfortunate that every computer animated movie needs to be compared to a PIXAR film.  True, PIXAR is clearly the gold standard of CG animation with their endlessly inventive technique and knack for tapping into story and characters that stick with the audience.  Over the years numerous studios have tried and mostly failed to capture that same magic.

I remember going in 2010’s Despicable Me with a bit of a grumpy attitude – here was yet another animated 3D film with A-List voices that would probably wear out its welcome before the first reel was over.  So you’d imagine my surprise when I found myself engaging with the movie and enjoying every minute of it.  With its crisp animation and sprightly voice talent a delightfully entertaining movie emerged and though it failed to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, its huge box-office take did allow Universal Studios and Illumination Entertainment (who also made the impressive Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax in 2012) to inch closer into PIXAR’s corner of the market.

Raking in millions pretty much guarantees a sequel for any movie released in this modern era so it’s not totally shocking that we find ourselves three years later with Despicable Me 2 and while it isn’t quite as on the button as its predecessor, it comes very close thanks to director Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin’s understanding of what the audience wants more of.

That would be The Minions.  The little yellow scamps that speak their own language and have a playful way of interacting pretty much steal the show…which is exactly what they were designed to do.  This being a sequel you have to give the audience something bigger and more substantial so the significance of these little imps has grown and they provide a large percentage of the laughs in a film that has plenty to spare.

Now the father to three orphaned girls, the one-time villain Gru (again voiced in a thick European accent by Steve Carrell, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and The Way Way Back) is settling into life as a single dad.  What I appreciated about the film is how it didn’t go the expected route and make the sequel all about the fatherhood angle but skillfully lets that part of Gru’s life continue to develop even as he’s called into action by the Anti-Villain League when a deadly formula is stolen from a top secret arctic research lab.

Going undercover at Paradise Mall (which looks like a snow globe and contains shops like Bake My Day) he’s teamed with a goofy agent voiced by Kristen Wiig (who, incidentally, voiced a different character in the first film) and they soon find themselves uncovering not only a plot to take over the world but a burgeoning romance of unrequited love.

It’s a fairly standard set-up that in lesser hands may have resulted in a movie that would soon take up space in the $5 bin at Target.  What keeps the  movie moving ever forward is it’s fast-paced jokes that give our stars nice room to flex their comic vocal chops and the animators room to be as creative as they want within the mall. Though the film does have a breakneck pace, I did find it a little long at 98 minutes – cutting out one or two extraneous subplots could have had this one clocking in about ten minutes shorter without losing any of the elements that work nicely.

Like the original, Despicable Me 2 is being released in 3D and there’s a case to be made of paying the up-charge to the 3D format.  Not only does the technology give the viewer more depth in some precisely designed scenes but the end-credits sequence has impressive effects that had young audience members (and at least one old one) reaching out to pop a bubble or dodge a flying object.

With its colorfully created world the movie will appeal to young children as much as its James Bond-y plot might speak to young teens and adults.  In a world of sequels that don’t measure up to the original, Despicable Me 2 is recommended as a worthy follow-up of solid entertainment.