Me Oh, shoot. I have to leave after dinner before we put up the lights.
Me: I have to return a movie before 8.
Wife: what movie?
Me: cars three
Me: cars three
I had to watch it. I wanted perspective. It did have one smile, when we see what a car is watching on his exercise machine TV screen:
So. Saw “Coco” on Saturday, and had to take two aspirin as soon as I got home.
Let me back up a bit.
We’re sitting in the theater, watching the trailers for computer-generated animation movies. The first is about garden gnomes who are really alive! Imagine that. But ha ha they freeze when humans are around. One of them jumps into a pit of mud and farts three times. There are bubbles.
There is a trailer for a movie about ducks, and a duck gets his bill stuck in a pig’s butt.
There is a trailer for a movie about a large bull, and he is trying to escape from some place in silence, but he farts too much.
Then we start the movie we’ve come to see, which tells its backstory by using squares of brightly colored paper that contain simple silhouettes, each illustrating the backstory for the narrator. It’s confident, clever, and immediately interesting, and I felt at home in the movie before I’d seen a single character. (And it didn’t occur to me until hours later that I was seeing, in essence, the storyboards for the opening.)
A two-minute taste - this ran before the Cars 3 movie.
tl;dr: Probably my favorite Pixar movie alongside Wall-E; can't choose.
What follows is not necessarily coherent, but it's difficult to discuss one element without spilling over into another. You start with story, you're talking character, then you're talking design, then you're talking the versimilitude of the fabrics and the Moderne architecture, and oh I forgot about the dog, and the wet stone in that one sequence is incredible, and so on.
Bear with me. It'll tip over in bathos as these things always do, but I'll save that for the end.
OVERALL I enjoyed the movie as much as any other Pixar movie, and in many ways, more than any other Pixar movies - possibly because every character was someone I was glad to see. Either because they were amusing, or droll, or interesting, or enigmatic, or colorful - for whatever reason, there weren’t any characters I disliked, endured, or just accepted with indifference. Think of your favorite Pixar movie; name the character you could do without. There’s usually one. There aren’t any in Coco, and it’s not because the cast is small.
1. STORY: I had it wrong. Thought it was about a kid who ends up in the Land of the Dead, and enlists the help of his wacky ancestors to get back. Nope. I mean, yes, but nope. The story was ingenious, and when it’s over you replay it backwards and marvel at the mechanism. That thing was boiled down to bones, but it never felt rote or rushed.
There were many things in the movie I should have seen coming, in retrospect, but in a Pixar movie I don’t try to think ahead. And often times I can’t: there’s so much there to absorb visually your brain just hasn’t the processing power to apprehend everything. Which leads to . . .
2. OY GEVALT, THE VISUALS. I don’t mean there’s so much happening in every inch of the screen - I mean there’s just so much of this world on display in such detail. You enter a vast hall teeming with characters and you’re pretty sure that if you had a machine that let you freeze the frame and zoom in on any character, you’d see the finest detail of their clothing, the contents of their wallet, the coins in their pocket.
You could say that about any well-done computer-animated movie, but you almost believe that if you burst into the offices of the animators, demanded that they scrub forward to 1:12:43, and zoom in on the first character who’s second from the left - show me the coins in his pocket! - they’d shrug, do it, and the coins would not only be there, there would be a 2 GB file of rendered coins based on real Mexican currency.
I mean, probably not, but you get the sense that they’ve thought this through down to the finest detail, because the best way to present a convincing world is to think about all the things you’re not going to show as well as all the things you will.
The visual ingenuity of the Land of the Dead has no peer in the Pixar catalogue, I think. It’s a fascinating place - but it’s like a theme park (literally; it has entrance gates) and you know eventually you want to go home to the village where the movie begins, and where its heart resides. Overtones of “Wizard of Oz,” without the depressing realization that Dorothy has vowed never to leave a dry, poor farm in dry, poor Kansas.
3. THE THIRD ACT PROBLEM. You may ask: does the third act of the movie feel like, well, you know, the third act of most "blockbuster" movies?
I'm tired of third acts. They’re something to be endured, for the most part - and since modern filmmakers can’t say no to interminable action set-pieces, the escalation of third-act mayhem gets worse and worse. So imagine my surprise when the cast of characters who must Band Together to Complete the Third Act go on a skulking mission to find the bad, bad guy in his gleaming redoubt - and run into him right away.
It’s a great joke, and it feels like a joke at the expense of third-act conventions. Don’t worry, we know. We know.
So what are the conventions? Lots of noisy fighting. Everything comes to a head, there’s conflict, fights, everything’s okay EXCEPT . . . beat beat beat IT’S NOT, more action, STOP! Tremulous moment, all is bleak - then Han Solo flies in from out of the sun, triumph, blaring brass, joy, let’s do this thing, redoubled effort, victory, comeuppance supreme, MAJOR KEY, circling camera around the exultant characters whose victory was never in doubt - but then, sometimes, there’s a swift tonal shift, because a beloved secondary character was gravely wounded, and all the sweetness of victory turns to ash.
Sometimes Spock or Vader dies, sometimes Eve jump-starts Wall-E.
You could make the argument that Pixar movies should avoid kinetic third acts entirely these days, since the appetite for escalation (or the filmmaker's assumption that we want and need ever-escalating third acts) tends to flatten out Pixar strengths. There’s no improving on the climax of Toy Story 1, is there? Tight, focused, cathartic, catch-phrase callbacks - it’s perfect. Now, you fear, the same scene would have been animated with 1000X detail and drawn out - and been no better for it.
So I’ll say this. The third act of “Coco” is almost a comment on third acts, and I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers, but it's hard not to imply them SO STOP and click HERE to skip. It hits the expected beats (everything’s over now EXCEPT IT’S NOT, and Han Solo) but it thrusts a secondary character into the conflict, features a key physical plot point you’re sure is going to be revealed to discredit the antagonist before society - but it isn’t. It ends with a callback to the first act that’s funny and satisfying, but damned stark: what killed him on earth ensures his solitary entombment forever in the afterlife, until his memory passes and he evaporates into nonexistence, or worse.
This is not heaven. This is purgatory. After that? It's a mystery, even to the dead.
Oh, and it all starts out with an avant-garde musical number conceived by Freida Kahlo. I know, I know, what a third-act cliche.
4. STRANGE CRITICAL RELUCTANCE
Let me jump ahead.
When we were done I checked the reviews. Some of the “Top Critics” quotes from Rotten Tomatoes, where the movie has a 96% rating. By “Top Critics” I mean people who are paid to sit in a theater with other critics at an odd time of the day and form opinions as they go along, because they have to sit down and write about it when they get back to the office, and insert some reservations to remind us that they’re critics.
If "Coco" doesn't quite reach the highest level of Pixar masterpieces,
Coco may not represent Disney/Pixar at its pinnacle but it's close enough to the top
"Coco" doesn't fully scale the heights of its predecessors, but
Does Coco rise to the heights of Pixar's very best work? No. But
So there are greater Pixar films out there, the critics say; this one’s quite good, but doesn’t rank among the very best, they say.
Which ones would qualify as “very best”?
You might get recognized trio of masterpieces: Wall-E, Up, Toy Story 3. I think people maaaaybe overselling Up, mostly on the brilliance of the marital-history sequence. After that it’s merely wonderful. I adore all of Wall-E, the first portion of which is a silent movie, more or less - and one of the bleakest things ever presented in the guise of a family movie, too. Ratatouille and The Incredibles - okay, I’m just running out of superlatives. If you were confined to a top four, or five, you'd wince at the one you left out. Because you probably loved it, too.
In short, it’s impossible to rank such a disparate collection of films.
Let's just say there’s The Pixar Movies, which are brilliant pieces of art that succeed on every level, and there are the few Lesser Pixar Movies that succeed as well, but not as well, or as consistently. And even those are pretty damned good when you compare them to farting mud-gnomes and Smurfs and all the rest of the formulaic, noisy, smart-alecky pop-culture-drenched animated films that come and go in remarkable numbers.
And then there’s Cars 3, which is in a different category entirely, and I think I speak for all grown-up Pixar fans who, when the subject is raised, instantly place an index finger on the lips of the person who brought up Cars 3 and says ssshhhh. It never happened. Look into my eyes. It never happened.
There’s no question Coco isn’t a Lesser film. How’s that for a pull quote? Okay, try this: It might be impossible to rank Pixar’s movies, so let’s just say that Coco, at minimum, is one of the finest - and the argument that it isn’t the best is a matter of preference for reasons that have nothing to do with the merits of the film. It’s just that you liked something about the others more.
But whatever you liked about the other movie, it’s in this one, and done just as well.
And it's all different. The setting, the culture, the character design of the skeleton people, the architecture - it's all different. We forget that every Pixar movie, sequels excepted, creates a new visual language.
It has better dogs, too. Doug from Up:
Yes, he's named after the horse. Duh.
The blockier design fit the general character design in Up, but Dante is not only much doggier, he has the incredible looseness of the Land of the Dead characters.
Another review, which had the same problem. New York Times:
But if “Coco” doesn’t quite reach the highest level of Pixar masterpieces, it plays a time-tested tune with captivating originality and flair, and with roving, playful pop-culture erudition.
So the Highest Level movies were even more captivatingly originally original with more flair, I guess. Pop-culture erudition? I don’t know what this means. Aside from a Party DJ reference, Coco exists outside of contemporary pop culture. There’s never the looming threat of someone quoting a meme or acting like Eddie Murphy’s Shrek Donkey or referencing a dozen other character cliches that replicate through the genre like viruses. It isn’t referencing pop culture; it isn’t uprooting old cultural stories to run them through the pop-cult remix blender for a transitory novelty, a paste of "ethnic" tropes smeared on the same old Chia Pet. It isn't ignorant of the modern world, or tells a pre-modern tale, but the pop-culture lattice of toothpicks and bubblegum is irrelevant to the heart of the characters, just as it’s irrelevant to everyone in the end. It doesn’t matter what’s new on your phone today. It really doesn’t.
ANYWAY. Back to watching the movie. It ends in the real work, and that’s where the final emotional blows fall, where all the repeated elements coalesce and take on power through their simplification. From a million colors blaring in the dark to a simple sun-warmed palette. What we first heard in a gaudy movie-musical scene is repeated with spare, heartfelt emotion, and everything we have learned about these words and notes bores right through your sternum.
BUT WAIT, they’re not done. There’s the sight of a sundered object repaired with tape, and that’s probably where the hardest of hearts in the theater gave up and lost composure.
BUT WAIT, they’re not done. One last scene to send you out smiling through your tears, and then it’s the credits. Daughter and I sat there to the end - we have a joke about seeing how many babies will be mentioned - and I thought, of course, how this might be the last one we’d see together like this. She won’t be living at home anymore. The casual “there’s a new Pixar movie out, let’s go” arrangement we’ve had all these years - well. It’s possible she’ll be back from Belgium or Denmark or the Czech Republic next summer in time to see the next one. Don’t know.
We wait until Luxo hops across the screen and bounces down the I and turns to us, then goes dark.
And then we stand and leave. That's what we always did.
She used to think it was funny that Dad always teared up in Pixar movies, but now here she is, wiping them away, telling me it’s the first time she can remember crying at a movie.
Welcome to adulthood, kid. What you feel now has been in these movies all along. And now you get it.You had to grow up to understand these things completely, and now they're waiting for you like books that had secret pages between the ones with the big, easy-to-read letters.
I started out by saying I had to go home and take aspirin, because holding back tears and letting them out as quietly as possible - it gives you a headache. But that passes. I think about it all now, and it's good. Both of us in the dark, not wanting to leave or break the spell. Wiping away the tears, happy as we'd ever been.
Is it my imagination, or have they not said Christmas on boxes for a long time?
Hasn't it been Holiday Crunch?
But wait: THERE'S MORE
I think this is new. I don't think it would have struck me otherwise.
We're currently enjoying . . .
Previously we’ve seen the Hornet get stuck in all kinds of calamities - the car goes into a gas station and blows up, and he doesn’t roll out; he’s just stunned. A bomb goes off, and he doesn’t leap out the window; he’s just stunned. Last week we saw a train wreck. Surely he doesn't walk away from a busted-up baggage car, does he?
What a ragdoll. Well. Back to the racket guys, who are getting frustrated; every single gambit has been thwarted. Why? One of them says “The Sentinel is the only paper that had that. There must be a connection between the Green Horne and the Sentinel.”
How to fix that? Why, attack the newspaper. That’ll make them stand down. That’ll get all the papers to shut up and stop covering things like, oh, crime.
In bursts a reporter to say that there wild animals at the zoo are getting loose - it’s a jinx! Reid, who is in reality the Green Hornet, nixes the story because the zoo area “is the only public park in the city.” But he agrees to go to the dock to see some new wild animals unloaded from a ship, because newspaper publishers and editors have nothing better to do in the course of a day.
See? It’s JINXED
To investigate some more, Reid sends a reporter to The Fair, which provides a nice look at the midways of yore.
We cut to the office of the zoo’s owner, who’s getting shaken down for 5 large by Lucky Bates , who works for The Racket. These guys have their hands in everything. Construction, airplane instruction, it never ends. The Sentinel reporter recognizes the yeggg shaking down the circus boss, and goes back to tell Reid that this circus angle will bust the rackets wide open.
Why no one ever got to the top guys before, I can’t say, but murkiness like that is what the serials depend upon.
So the Green Hornet decides to go to the Circus and see what’s up . . . and what the hell is this?
Interesting. Not your Minnesota State Fair, believe me. There’s the Fat Lady:
I think it's Celeste Geyer, aka Dolly Dimples. She was almost at six bills by this point, but:
After surviving a near fatal heart attack in 1950, Dolly followed a strict 800 calories per day diet and in little more than a year she reduced her weight to 112 pounds
And she kept it off for thirty years.
Anyway. The Hornet doesn’t worry about discovery, since everyone at the Fair tonight is wearing masks. You know, on Mask Night. But Moike the Irish Bodyguard is there, and swears he saw the Grain Hernet, so we suspect this’ll pay off in a bit.
Meanwhile, we learn that eleven episodes in, he’s still having brand recognition problems:
The Hornet catches Lucky Bates shaking down the owner, and forces him to sign a confession. Outside, Moike recognizes some thugs from The Racket, and like any other private security guard, starts a fistight. And so:
This greats a big fire which results in all the animals escaping, of course, and it’s intercut with a hats-on special:
Again, the rapid cuts work great, even if the connection between one stall inexplicably bursting into flames and total chaos seems a bit exaggerated. The thugs knock out the Green Hornet, and we’re left with the final cliffhanger.