Monday, December 11, 2017

Coco Review (Spoilers)

Over the weekend, I took Mum and Dad to see Pixar's latest masterpiece - Coco!  (And if you're wondering, yes, the much maligned "Olaf short" was still screened before it that day).

Technically, the film doesn't officially open here in NZ till Boxing Day. However, while checking the cinema times for the weekend (what better way to pass a few hours during the 30+ degree heatwave that's been gripping Christchurch over the past few weeks), I was pleasantly surprised to see that they were showing it various theatres this weekend! It turns out that these were actually special advance screenings (I didn't know that at the time), and that they were only going to be running over that weekend (luckily my gut instict was right on this part... it would've sucked having to wait another 3 or so weeks to get to see this).

Overall Impressions (Spoiler Free)
Wow. That is one solid piece of film-making that provides an all-round experience.
  * Breathtaking Visuals - Check
  * Engaging Story - Check
  * Powerful and Heartfelt Emotional Moments - Check
  * Inventive and Inspired Artistry - Check
  * Amazing Soundtrack - Check
  * Strong Messages/Themes - Check

I'll comment on a lot of these points later in more detail (as it's easier to comment one these with a few examples). But for now, I'll concentrate on a few general points that aren't too spoilery.

One of these things is how the film puts Mexican culture front and center - no, it's more like it is completely infused with a strong cultural awareness and flavour. After the film, one of the things Mum mentioned was how you could really smell Mexico through this film (in a good way ). That's no mean feat considering that my folks spent some time living there many years ago as part of some UN job.

I was particularly surprised by how similar Mexican and Chinese cultures are in many respects. For example, the whole ofrenda thing (i.e. a tiered table/shelf thing with representations of all your ancestors - for Chinese, it was traditionally just a thin-wooden plaque), the "day to visit/clean the graves at the cemetery on the hill" (e.g. Ching-Ming-Jeet), and the idea of leaving a loved one's favourite stuff for them at their grave to take back to the other side. Mum pointed out other similarities, such as the Tamales (i.e. corn wrapped in a leaf ==  sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf), and the bridges linking the lands of the living and the dead (i.e. Marigold Bridges vs Loi Hor Kiu).

Then there was that amazing Papel Picado (paper cutout) opening sequence. It was really interesting seeing them experimenting with different animation styles, and having the camera move around these as they were animated to tell the story. Yes, it was quite a bit to take in all at once like that, but it was also quite a novel approach.

The "Olaf short"  
(Note: Coco spoilers follow after this section)
Ah, where do we begin...  maybe, for starters with the sudden realisation while typing this that there's just a single letter difference between "Olaf" and "Oaf"  😂

Ok, so first, I should note that I was definitely not too happy when I first heard that Disney had decided to put a Disney-produced "short/featurette" film (and one based on blatantly milking that Frozen juggernaut for all its worth) in front of Coco. Wasn't there any other short they could have shown instead (e.g. I'm personally still waiting to see what their "Smash and Grab" short is like. It's possible though that that short might not be suitable for general audiences)?

And also, from what I've seen/heard from this thing and from people who have seen it, I really was bracing for the worst.

That said, in practice, it wasn't quite as bad as I had feared. Not by miles. (That honour I have to reserve for the 2-3 minutes of one of the later Ice Age films I inadvertantly stumbled on a while back... that combination of annoying voices/pacing/baby-babble-inanity-filler, if combined with a suitable song sung in candy-coated snowman-voice and a psychaedelic stripy-neon-candycane-aesthetic, would probably be good to use in terrorist torture chambers - but I digress)

Sure, it would've been better to have had one a great short-short instead (e.g. Pixar's Piper, or maybe at a stretch, Disney's Inner Workings), but for what it was, it was ok-ish. Maybe it might've been good to cut/shorten some of Olaf's songs (e.g. by reducing some of the sets of characters included)... hell, just cut most of the forgettable songs althogether from this thing!

If there are any positives from this thing:
  1) Mum liked Elsa's dress + cape thingy

  2) The knit-ware animation sequence was an interesting idea. I wonder what grandma would've done if she'd seen that when she was still alive when it came out... hmm...

-------------------------- Spoilers Begin Below------------------------- -------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Breathtaking Visuals
1) While many people cite the reveal of the Land of the Dead (as featured in the trailers) as being quite an impressive shot (and yes, it is definitely an impressive sight to behold, as the camera slow sweeps in the view), I was personally a lot more impressed by the short-and-fast shot where they first introduce the cemetery at night.

This shot is epic!

Wow! The lighting in this shot is just absolutely gorgeous. In the cinema, you also see wisps of smoke rising from the candles/small fires that people have lit, making this shot all the more impressive.

2) Equally impressive is that little scene in Miguel's little attic shrine (as introduced in the first teaser trailer):

That soft, warm, candle-lit scene is mesmerising and really beautiful. In fact, that whole scene there with Miguel playing the guitar along to the old VCR tape while mimicking his idol is one of my favourite scenes from the film.

Favourite/Most Memorable Scenes
Anyone who's seen the film will know that there are several "emotional climaxes" in the film. I think it's fair to say that it'd be hard to not cry (or get slightly misty eyed) through *all* of these moments - maybe you can make it through one or two of them, but most people would find it hard to do that for all of these...

Here's my personal ranking of the 3 most memorable/emotional moments in decreasing order:
1) Hector and Miguel's reunion in the pit + Hector's Lullaby
For me, this was perhaps the most emotional/intense scene in the whole film (even though many people would point to #2 instead). I lost it when Hector started to sing - as in, involuntary tears gushing out mucho rapido. The depth of feeling/sadness in this scene was really intense, especially when the cute little baby Coco shouts "Papa!"

2) Mama Coco remembering and coming to life - Her eyes!
In contrast, the scene where Miguel sings to Mama Coco felt to me slightly less intense (though most of the rest of the audience was in tears at that point). That said, this had the unanticipated side-effect that I got to really enjoy all the nuances the animators put into Coco's performance in this pivotal scene. Wow! That is some dark magic there're doing there!

For those who need a little refresher on what happens here: We first see her fingers starting to twitch - a faint glimmer of recollection (and life, from a character who has up till then been mostly frozen).  Then, as the song progresses, we gradually see her eyes widening, and then - here's the magic part - you see/feel that they're almost dancing and glowing with joy. IIRC, what really struck me at that moment was how big her eyes were when she finally opened them, and also how full of life they were.

To a lesser extent, I should probably also mention how interesting it was watching how they articulated the wrinkles on her hands and face when they started moving. There was a interesting sensation there - just like the first time I saw the Geri's Game short as a kid in Harvey Norman, and thinking how the characters felt like clay/some physical material but were slightly different. In this case, I think it was more like seeing what looked like tree-bark suddenly moving, almost like some heavy drapes/dress fabric, but with heaps of little subtle variations in how it all moved.

3) Chicarron's Death Scene - Wow... that was deep. 
The notion that death itself is not that scary - but instead, it's "the second death" (i.e. "being forgotten") - is quite a meaty nugget to really chew over for a while. No doubt many essays can be written on this one topic, though I'm not going to try now.

Anyways, this scene was really quite beautiful in many ways. From the beautiful moonlit hammock, to the glowing dust, to the soundtrack (*), and finally, those closeups on the glasses. TBH, I almost lost it there already when the camera lingered on the closeup of the upturned glass at the end of that scene.

As for the soundtrack in this scene: There were 2 elements here that I really love.
   - First, there's that hauntingly sad guitar solo that's first introduced here (and then reappears multiple times later in the film everytime Hector is about to be forgotten) - that little theme is really nice... so rich and juicy and beautiful in how on-point it is.
   - Second, there's the use of the whispy native-flute sounds. TBH, I'm a bit of sucker for this particular type of sound. It's got these amazing mystical/atmospheric quality to it that's really awesome to hear.

Some of my other favourite moments include:
* That triumphant upwards swoosh when Pepita rescues Miguel during the climax - That was quite a hair-raising moment

* De La Cruz's "second run-in with the bell" ;)

* When Mama Imelda first sings to Miguel in the back alley

Amazing Animation and Inventive Stuff
* First, can we just stop and take a moment to pay our respects to the animators who worked on all those closeup shots of the guitar playing. Man, serious respect guys/gals!

Anyone who's spent any time animating / working with animators / watching animators working will know just how hard it is to have any close-up, intricate finger movement with prop contact. (For the rest of you, just watch Hjalti's sped-up screencast)  - In short: It's a really painful process!

I can't wait to hear more about how they approached these shots - especially what tooling support they had for doing this, as some of the BTS clips show little snippets of audio talking about different controls being parented to different bits and bobs...

* That scene where Hector is getting interrogated by the border guard, and his bones are flying all around the place...

It's clear to see that the animators were having a helluva lot of fun on this shot! No doubt with some custom rigs especially for just that shot too (apparently just like the "Poco Loco" sequence)

* The Alebrijes!  It was amazing seeing all the colourful and crazy designs they came up with for these. In particular, two of my favourite moments were:
  1) The porcupine serving snacks

  2) How Pepita turns into a (small) house-cat when crossing over to the land of the living (while Dante goes from being a small alebrije to being a larger Xolo dog). So cute!  (and such a fun transition with the shadows)

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