Coco (2017): An Amazing Pixar Epic That Explores Family and Love

     Pixar has done it again. “Coco” is easily the best film their studio has put out since “Inside Out” and is definitely in my  Top 5 films made by the studio. This is film full of beautiful creativity, action that matters, a powerful message and enthralling characters. For my non-spoiler thoughts, this is Pixar and it isn’t a sequel, go and see it. Hopefully “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” will have been taken out before you see it too, I’m doing that as a separate review but it was the worst part of the viewing experience.

The film was directed by Lee Unkrich, written by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich and produced by Darla K. Anderson.

The story follows Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) a young boy who wants to be a musician but whose family has abandoned music after their ancestor left his wife long ago and never returned to become a musician. From here he finds himself pulled into the Land of the Dead as he seeks his ancestors blessing in order to return to the Land of the Living before he a curse he brought about sets in on himself and his family.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Animation – This is easily one of the best looking Pixar film since “Inside Out.” Like “Inside Out” it is colorful and full of contrasts and our characters are each distinct both in look and the voices portraying them. This is also Pixar, so great animation isn’t too much of a surprise, it just really stood out in this film.

The Family and Their Dynamics – The main drama that drives the story is Miguel’s relationship to his family and the relationship between his last known living ancestors. The story starts out with Miguel wanting to be a musician and believing the famous celebrity who died named Ernesto de la Cruz is his ancestor because of the picture on his mantel and the fact that he was from his village. His family does all they can to keep from music (his grandmother even breaks his guitar), leading him to go the Land of the Dead where he seeks de la Cruz’s blessing (as his ancestor Imelda will not give it). The story unfolds from here as the ancestors try to get him back to send him home so they won’t be cursed and as the story unfolds we learn more about Imelda’s relationship to music and her missing husband as the family comes together over the course of the film.

The Land of the Dead – The Land of the Dead is wonderfully done. It is a mixture of eras and technology and they even have a travel system on Day of the Dead where your face is checked to see if someone has put your picture up in the Land of the Living. It is all creatively done and built on popularity (with Ernesto de la Cruz being the star). I wanted to see more of this place as we get to see the entrance and the city but also the underbelly where Hector lives where those who are forgotten live before they pass away forever.

Hector and Imelda – These two were my favorite characters and their drama is the core of the story as Hector went off to be a musician and was killed by Ernesto when he tried to return home. Because Imelda was living on her own supporting Coco she started her family’s obsession with shoes as that was how they built a livelihood. Their arc is coming together again and taking down de la Cruz as Imelda discovers her love of singing again and Hector becomes part of the family once more as they are both reunited with Coco a year later after she dies.

The Coco Scenes – Coco is an ancient old woman and Miguel’s Great Grandmother. For much of the film she doesn’t interact at all, except for calling out her father’s name. It is this way until the end when Miguel returns and plays her song, “Remember Me,” that Hector used to sing to her before he would travel and do concerts. We learn she held onto his songs and a portion of the photograph her mother had torn and through remembering Hector he is remembered and doesn’t die in the Land of the Dead, with Coco joining her parents a year later. It is powerful and I teared up when Miguel sings her the song that Hector always had.

Okay: Ernesto de la Cruz – Benjamin Bratt voices a great villain as Cruz is one who only cares about seizing the moment and holding onto his station in life. He killed Hector and nearly kills Miguel, all to keep his power. I wish he’d been more complex, but as a villain you think might be a good guy at first, he was fun, so not a con.

Entering the Land of the Dead – Miguel enters the Land of the Dead when he plays his father’s guitar. There isn’t a reason given minus the border between worlds being thin, so I wish we had been told more. It wasn’t bad but it just kind of happens and he becomes a ghost.

This is a film that might have you tearing up by the end, as it did me. Films like this are why Pixar is so loved and I can’t wait to see what they do next. I’ll be buying this film when it comes out and it is easily one of my favorites of the year, even if it may not make the Top 5. The main story is solid, the emotional core is strong and the world is amazing. The only things they could have improved on were the villain and how Miguel entered the Land of the Dead.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

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Pete’s Dragon (2016): A Celebration of the Wonder of Nature and Magic of Childhood

   The new “Pete’s Dragon” is one of my favorite films. This is a film that manages to capture the wonder of nature, wildlife and childhood and also the complex relationships that come with family. The soundtrack leads to a beautiful meditation on it all with some absolutely wonderful performances by Bryce Dallas Howard and the legendary Robert Redford. Non-spoiler thoughts, I recommend this film and think you should check it out. I grew up on the original film and this film so different, and in my opinion so much deeper and better.

 The film was directed by David Lowery who co-wrote the script with Toby Halbrooks and produced by James Whitaker.

    The story involves Pete who is presumed dead when his parents die in a crash in the forest. It is here the dragon Elliot finds him and raises him before he runs into Ranger Grace whose husband is a foreman of the Lumbermill that has impeded on the territory where Elliot and Pete are living. From here the story unfolds.

The Pros: The World – The world is rich! The forest is full of life, the small town is full of politics and there is a dragon. This is very much a surrealistic fantasy world.

The Soundtrack – Daniel Hart creates a  beautiful americana folk soundtrack that captures the brutal feel of the lumber mill, the isolation of the town and the magic of the forest. It is meditative and reflects the feelings in our characters’ heads. Suffice to say, I can’t wait to see what music he does next as I’ve always been a fan of folk and it was perfect for this film.

The Characters – The characters are a strong part of this film! From Karl Urban’s Gavin who feels powerless so wants to own and capture Elliot as he’s in a dying industry (he works on a lumber mill) and his brother doesn’t respect him. Howard’s Grace is someone who is trying to make things work with her own family and make peace with the fact that her husband’s job is destroying the forest she works in as well as her own doubt of her father Mr. Meachum whose arc is capturing the magic of his childhood (Redford does this wonderfully) and of course the child actors who play Pete and Natalie who become friends as it is Natalie who helps Pete realize he wants to be a part of the world again and no longer separate in the forest.

The Wonder and Terror of the Natural World – The natural world is front and center in this story and all the wonder and terror of it all. It is almost hitting a deer that leads to the death of Pete’s parents and Elliot almost kills his new parents when he turns on his attackers and rage and attempts to burn them. It is only through respect that humans can co-exist with nature and with the natural world, is what the film argues. It is very Miyazakiesque and it is part of what makes the film so beautiful.

Okay: Dealing with Grief  and Loss – The film dealt with this a little bit but not really as Elliot was Pete’s way of dealing so we never him truly face the fact that his parents are dead. There are a few moments he misses them, but we never have the chance to see him face his grief. There was shock but after that not much else besides him forming a bond with a new family. It was dealt with a little but not enough for me to put it as a pro. The one way it worked was that Pete was tied to the forest and is always trying to run back until he faces his grief to some degree, which helps him form bonds in the world and a new family, in turn leading him to leave the forest.

The Cons: Jack – Jack, Grace’s husband is a plot device and is only there to counter the antagonist Gavin (his brother) who is hunting and captures Elliot. He never felt fully fleshed out and I didn’t know why he and Grace were together.

    This was an amazing film that is the only one of the Disney remakes that I consider great. “The Jungle Book” remake was awful and even though I’ve heard good things about “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast,” I am still worried. A good story can pull upon past stories, but it shouldn’t be a retelling, if I wanted a retelling I’d just read or watch that same story again. This film gets away from that and it is part of the reason it is a favorite film now. This is a film where magic happens and truly captures the beauty that can surround us.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10 Would be higher if Pete dealing with his grief had played a bigger role and Jack had been a character not a plot device.

Moana (2016): Honoring Polynesian Mythology and Culture in Disney’s “Princess Model” to Create a Classic

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  I really liked “Moana.” It was no “Kubo and the Two Strings” but besides “Up” and “Inside Out” not many can compare to that…but this is classic Disney as it’s best. This is Disney taking the “Princess Model” (Princess goes against status quo for family, tribe, etc. for greater good) and achieves final great ends while being helped along by animal and magical companions. This is the base of Moana that the director, writer and Lin-Manuel build upon. Suffice to say I have nothing but affection for this film as it captures both my love of history (paying tribute to the Polynesian tribes and their history of exploration) and culture (how they related to one another and others).

    The film was directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, written by Jared Bush and produced by Osnat Shurer.

     The film involves Princess Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) dealing with the after affects of Maoi stealing the heart of Te Fiti as her Island slowly dies and her people become more isolated. Prompted by her Grandmother and her own desire for adventure seeks out Maoi (Dwayne Johnson) and the heart to restore peace in the world once more.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is awesome! Welcome to a world inspired by Polynesian mythology, with gods, demons  and islands connected by travel. This is a world that I only wanted to spend more time in and you should experience for yourself.

The History – The history is rich and tells a story that needs to be told. The early explorers and traders in the Americas were Polynesians but that is often ignored to history as horrible folks like Columbus get credit instead. This world recognizes what was long before Europeans came and congresses the thriving cultures that colonialism and in many ways destroyed, even though many histories and cultures still live on, as shown by this film.

The Animation – This it the best of Disney Animation and shows us a variety of animation types…from 3-D over 2-D and some fantastic visuals. The islands feel alive and real and honestly, besides “Wreck-It Ralph” this is the best animation so far.

The Soundtrack – It’s Lin-Manuel Miranda overseeing it and it shows! You’ve got musical, rap and power as just as he gave power to “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” each culture and history he touches is given his own take and with it passion and life.

The Characters – The characters drive the film and are really what make it stand out and put it above “Kung Fu Panda 3” and most Dreamworks films.

Grandma Tala – Grandma is the heart of the film. She motivates Moana’s desire to travel beyond the island her death incites Moana finally doing it. She is there for Moana through the best and worst times and her loss is felt once it happens.

Chief Tui – Chief Tui is traditional Disney Dad afraid of Daughter being free. This time it is given reason though as he lost a friend when he went beyond the reef. Sadly we don’t get more exploration though, everything he does is a reaction to Moana and it hurts his character development.

Maui – Dwayne Johnson is awesome! Maui hurts the Goddess by sealing her heart (Disney is clearly okay going there post “Maleficent”) and his arc is restoring the heart and apologizing for his wrong which was for his ego and for humanity, the people who abandoned him leaving the ocean and Gods to give him his power and turn him into a Demi-God. He is funny but can do drama too…seriously, “The Rock” is underrated as an actor.

Moana – Is the princess who drives the story as she and her animal sidekick try to save the world and find Maui in order to restore peace. She is awesome and I wish she’d found her power sooner as we see her being a fantastic Chief before her voyage beyond the reef. I felt for her, she lost and she gained and she discovered her own power.

A Story Not Told in the West – Polynesian culture has usually always been exoctized in the west and this was finally breaking free of that. Rather than being treated as a vacation spot where the people are a reward rather than a people. This film changes that which is a needed reaction to Disney’s past exocization of Hawaii and Polynesia. This can’t be stated enough and I hope those involved are aware of Disney’s own dark history.

Okay: The Disney Princess Model – Princess teams up with magical being (The Genie, Stich, Mushu, etc.) and an animal companion (s) (The Mice, The Horse in “Mulan” and “Tangled,” etc.) to defeat her family’s prejudice’s (“Frozen,” “Mulan,” etc.) and restore balance and peace. Disney has done this so many times and that is why I say it is okay. “Moana” doesn’t subvert anything like “Zootopia” or “Frozen” did.

The Cons: Tamatoa and Codedness – A villian coded as gay who is vain wants to eat the heroes! This isn’t new! (Prince John, Radcliff, Jafar, etc.) DIsney you are better than this. Though to be fair, even “Wreck-It Ralph” Sadly had this problem too. Feminine men need to stop being coded as bad.

The Mother as Plot Device – The mother helps Moana and tells the story of why her husband fears the sea…she is basically a plot device to motivate Moana to stay or leave, which is a shame as her helping Moana leave hinted at so much more.

Why Afraid to Take a Chance? – This movie took the safe route, Moana with her magic friend and animal side kick saves the world. Nothing is subverted when so much more could of. I like that he demon was the goddess  who needed balance again, which was Miyazi-esque but so much more could have been done. Why did she assume Maui could only save the day? She was the Chief to be, she was empowered, there was no reason to hand him the direction for the first half of the film.

   This is a film that I really liked and I consider a favorite. Now it probably won’t make my Top 5 of 2016 but that doesn’t change the fact that Polynesian culture and mythology have not been explored in the west beyond being exotcized. This changed that and gained so much power because of it. Yes it followed the “Princess Model” which is Disney’s take on the “Hero’s Journey” but it did it in such a powerful. This was Miyazaki levels of storytelling and “Hamilton” inspired music (Thanks Lin-Manuel Miranda). I can only recommend this film.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10

Wreck-It Ralph (2012): The Story of Outcasts, Healing and Purpose

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Talk about nostalgia, as a gamer the references to specific games and types of games alone was enough to find joy in this film, and to top it all off it had a great story. Before I go into more detail though, the film is “Wreck-It Ralph.” As a kid who used to love arcades and a person who still loves arcades this film captured part of what makes arcades and gaming as a whole so wonderful.

“Wreck-It Ralph” was directed by Rich Moore, who was also one of the story writers. It was produced by Clark Spencer and the screenplay was by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston, with the story by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston and Jim Reardon. As can be seen, there is a lot of overlap on folks who helped make this movie happen which is why I think the world and story were so solid going in. It looks like a collaboration.

The story of “Wreck-It Ralph” is that Wreck-It Ralph is tired of being the bad guy and outcast in his game and when he’s told by the townsfolk he’ll be accepted if he gets a medal he jumps games in the arcade and goes Turbo, from here the story unfolds as he shakes things up in the worlds between the arcades and Fix-It Felix is sent to bring him back.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The animation – The animation is amazing. It flows, it captures retro games when it needs too and the characters in 3-D look great (Sonic, Bowser, Pac-Man Ghost, etc.) it is a beautiful film to look at, especially the dark world and shooter of Hero’s Duty and the whimsical color of Sugar Rush.

the Music – The music has electronic feel to it and is memorable and fun. I loved the soundtrack, Henry Jackman was good at integrating video game music throughout which further enriched the world that had been created.

The World – All video games are connected and the characters interact when the arcade is shut down. It is kind of “Toy Story”like that way. There is interaction between characters and you understand people’s fear of getting shut down as they are left homeless or destroyed as what happened when Turbo tried to hijack a new racing game and what he does later.

Sergeant Tamora – A character designed with a traumatic backstory who over the course of the film deals with the loss of her husband on their wedding day. She actually reminds me a lot The Bride from the “Kill Bill” films. Jane Lynch is fantastic and she has to be one of my favorite characters in the film. She is the one who teaches us about the threat of the Cy-Bugs (bugs that adapt by becoming whatever they eat and who are programmed to expand like a virus). She is a wonderful character, though her romance with Fix-It Felix was kind of unnecessary.

Vanellope – Is a glitch in sugar rush who is persecuted because she is different. The Candy King sees her as the biggest threat and she is the rebel who helps Ralph find his heart. She reminds him of something more to fight for and is the one who is willing to risk for others in the end too. She is the most selfish initially outside of Ralph, but both of hteir arcs involve finding each other and caring for everyone else when they find they are or were alone. Sarah Silverman was not annoying and did the kid sister role really well.

Fix-It Felix – He doesn’t really have an arc beyond getting awareness outside of himself (a theme of this film) but he still doe a good job. He eventually gets beyond his privilege and peer pressure from the townsfolk’s tower he always fixes when Ralph wrecks it in the game. I think Tamora helps him realize this when he sees just how lucky he’s had it when her back-story is referenced. He has funny expressions in his speech that make him adorable and he is a kind guy.

Wreck-It Ralph – Ralph reminds me a lot of the character of Shrek, except without all the cynicism, he genuinely wants acceptance and will go to any lengths to get it. It makes him interesting as he isn’t the guy who doesn’t care, he cares but goes about it the wrong way as well as having his code against him in regards to his awkward size that destroys things. When he finds his heart at the end it is fantastic as he puts himself at risk for Van and she does the same for him. He finds community in the end and it is done in a believable way. John Reilly was perfect for this role, though at times i thought it was very John Goodman like too.

The Themes – The themes of the outcasts finding acceptance and love is beautiful and done really well. There weren’t any characters I didn’t like and it was good at showing how wanting to be accepted and fit in can lead to selfish and selfless actions.

The Final Fight – Cy-Bugs, Van glitching to save Ralph has he activates the Mentos volcano.

Okay: Candy King/Turbo – He was an okay bad guy, I don’t get why he wanted to go Turbo and conquer all the games given he had things pretty good in the Candy Kingdom. His issue with Van I didn’t understand either. Did he expect to always win? He wasn’t a horrible villain but I wouldn’t call him great either. There hasn’t been a good one of those that wasn’t Pixar and from Disney though since…since Disney did 2D animation. None of their 3D villains really stand out if they aren’t made by Pixar. Cool design after he absorbs the bugs (how did he absorb the Cy-Bugs?) for the final is cool though and he does feel like a real threat in the film for what it’s worth. I wish Alan Tudyk had been given more to work with.

Cons: Some of the puns – Some of the food puns got a little out of hand…again this is from a guy who makes tons of puns and generally likes puns. At times this movie made too many.

I got to say, I loved this film. The characters were fantastic, even if the villain wasn’t great…the world and music were amazing…if you’ve ever played video games you’ll find a lot to love about this film. It’s not as great as “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World” but still a favorite nostalgic film after today. I highly recommend it.

Final Score 9 / 10. Solidly great.