For a review of “Coco,”
One thing’s for certain — you’re going to want to call your grandparents after seeing Pixar’s latest masterpiece “Coco.” Centered around the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos ( Day of the Dead), “Coco” uses the vibrant colors and style of the holiday to spin an imaginative tale rich in tradition and culture, while beautifully celebrating family.
Dia de los Muertos is a day when families honor and memorialize their ancestors with elaborate “ofrendas”— offerings of food, drinks and other gifts on decorated shrines with photographs and mementos— as a way to keep the spirits of family members who have passed on alive in the memories of their loved ones.
Using the holiday as an inspiration, co- directors and co- writers Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina spin a creative and colorful tale about ayoung boy, Miguel( Anthony Gonzalez ), who desperately wants his family to understand his passion for music. It’s not until he unearths the truth about his family history that they are able to understandwhy it’s so important to him.
Coming from a long line of shoemakers, music is forbidden in Miguel’s home, ever since his great- great grandfather left the family to pursue his musical dreams. Armed with a few cryptic clues, Miguel deduces that his grandfather was legendary musician Ernesto de la Cruz ( Benjamin Bratt), and plans to “borrow” a guitar fromthe famous singer’s tomb to play in the talent show.
But stealing from the dead plunges Miguel into amysterious otherworld, a liminal space where he’s able to interact with the dead souls who cross over to the living world on Dia de los Muertos. His deceased family members bring him across the bridge of flowers to the Land of the Dead, so Miguel can obtain a blessing to return home before sunrise. That sets off a wild adventure in which he tracks down de la Cruz, with the help of wayward soul Hector ( Gael Garcia Bernal), while evading his strict greatgreat grandmother Imelda ( Alanna Ubach), who’s still smarting from her husband’s rejection.
The human world of “Coco” is wonderfully detailed and rich, but the Land of the Dead is where themagic truly happens. The spirits are friendly, clattering skeletons with decorated skulls and loosely connected joints. The neon- patterned animal spirit guides, “alebrijes,” soar through the sky and breathe fluorescent fire. The ghost of Frida Kahlo summons dancers from huge, flaming avocados, while bright marigold flowers serve as the symbolic and real bridge between the human and dead worlds. It’s a feast for the eyes.
“Coco” is a backstage musical, where all of the songs are presented in a theatrical setting, as part of the plot — characters aren’t bursting into song without provocation. Each song has a meaning, as Miguel summons his courage, conquers his stage fright and learns that songs can be the connection, the memory that connects the living and the dead.
For all of the stunning visuals and eye- popping delights of “Coco,” it’s all about the heart of the matter, and the film delivers. Unkrich and Molina, aswell as Jason Katz and Matthew Aldrich, who receive story by credits, use the themes of family history, memory and legacy to create a tremendous ly moving story, with an important message about honoring our roots. It’s a gorgeous, emotional film and another home run for Pix ar/ Disney.
“Coco,” a Pixar/ Disney release, is rated PG for thematic elements. Running time: 109 minutes. ★★★★
“Man Who Invented Christmas”
There have been numerous TV, film and stage adaptations of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” over the years. None have combined as much charm, warmth and holiday spirit as Bharat Nalluri’s “The Man Who Invented Christmas.”
OK. Before you start shouting “Bah, humbug,” this technically isn’t a direct adaptation of thewell- known story of Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim and those three ghosts that Dickens wrote in six weeks in 1843. This version has taken the novella and blended it with biographical material to look at the journey Dickens made from being mired in a writing funk after three flops to creating one of the greatest pieces of literature.
Dan Stevens, who has already showed a great acting range through his work in the live- action version of “Beauty and the Beast” and the thought- provoking “The Ticket,” takes on the role of Dickens. It’s a demanding part as the character goes from an international celebrity to a man wrestling with soul- wrenching demons. The story suggests Dickens had such a vivid imagination that his characters would spring to life as soon as he found the proper name for them.
Stevens handles every challenge thrown at him, even when Dickens appears to be on the verge of madness as he allows himself to be judged by the characters that he’s fashioned in his mind. There’s an energy to the way Stevens plays the role that makes even the film’s darkest moment when Dickens faces his darkest fears feel alive.
His companion on the quest to finish the book is a manifestation of Scrooge ( Christopher Plummer), who serves as both a writing guide as Dickens finds his way through the novel and as a personification of all that Dickens sees wrong with the world and himself.
Plummer’s performance beautifully gets across the best and worst of Scrooge to make this one of the most entertaining versions of the character ever played. The actor has the great ability to be both a Scrooge with a black heart and one who, like Dickens, has finally faced his demons.
Much of the darkness in the writer’s life comes from his relationship with his scallywag of a father, John Dickens ( Jonathan Pryce). Dickens is burdened by the natural need for a son to have his father’s approval while trying to keep his father out of sight and mind. This emotional battle is helping choke his creative drive.
Pryce turns in a compelling performance, finding the right amount of charm that makes his character believable as a man who has — as Dickens puts it — spent his life bobbing like a cork on the waters of life. He also handles the moments when John Dickens must show his true dark side such as when he gets caught rifling through his son’s trash to find papers that feature a signature that he can sell.
The screenplay for “The Man Who Invented Christmas” by Susan Coyne is based on the book by historian Les Standiford that dramatizes the period when Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol.” The combination of fact and fiction is structured to show a parallel of how while Scrooge was seeking salvation from his miserly ways, Dickens himself dealing with being shackled to dark chains created by his fears of failure, the pain of abandonment issues and concerns his writing abilities were about to wither away.
The majority of Nalluri’s recent work has been in television, and that helps, as he doesn’t try create a large and bustling London, but one that would fit in the confines of a TV format where there is more of a feeling of claustrophobia. He’s lined the streets with all social levels of people who are united by one thing: a passion for the writings of Dickens.
It’s become a tradition that some— or many— filmed versions of “A Christmas Carol” be shown on television during the holiday season. “The Man Who Invented Christmas” should be added to the annual mix because it not only offers a fresh look at the familiar ghost story, but it also has a lot to say about the good in humans if they will only stop trying to suppress it. God bless the filmmakers, one and all, for creating sucha treat.
“The Man Who Invented Christmas,” a Bleecker Street release, is rated PG for thematic elements, mild language. Running time: 104 minutes. ★★★
Bharat Nalluri’s “The Man Who Invented Christmas” stars, Christopher Plummer, left, as Ebenezer Scrooge and Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens.