The River Bride – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Center, Phoenix

There’s an Amazonian folklore that tells of pink dolphins, known as the boto, who swim the river and turn into men. Once on land, the handsome young men seduce the village girls, impregnate them, then return to the river. Some believe the story arose because of dolphin genitalia bearing a resemblance to that of a human. Perhaps more realistically, others think it developed as a way to enshroud the habit of incestuous relationships, something not altogether unusual in small, isolated villages along the Amazon. How the myth came about would make an interesting subject of its own.

Award-winning playwright, Marisela Treviño Orta has cleverly taken that legend and crafted her own tale of the boto. The River Bride, now performing at Herberger Center until December 3, is a fairy tale, a hypnotic, dream-like fable of love and yearning whose telling flows as gracefully as the surface of the Amazon itself.

A mysterious man is rescued from the river, just at a time when a local wedding is about take place. As we learn during the introduction, “The only time here is ‘once.’” And then, as if to underline that what we’re about to see is truly a fantasy, our narrator begins the tale of The River Bride with, “Once upon a time...”

The youngest of two sisters, the impetuous Belmira (Paula Rebelo), is going to marry Duarte (Sean Burgos), and she can’t wait. “I am going to see the world, Boto,” she happily declares to a river dolphin as it passes the small, wooden pier that leads from the bank of the river to the family home. But a storm, effectively depicted on a giant, back screen projection complete with sounds of rain, thunder and a crack of sorcerous lightning, changes the course of events. Belmira’s wedding will take place in three days, but the arrival of the mystifying Moises (Hugo E. Carbajal) may change things in ways no one could predict.

There’s something different about Moises. He’s friendly, genuinely warm, and appears to be every bit the gentleman that older sister, Helena (Sarita Ocón) would desire in a man. But knowing the legend of the Boto, the immediate question is whether Moises, fished from the river, is a really a human or a river dolphin, using its once-a-year ability to come ashore for three days and find a bride before the sun sets on the third. The mystery is enhanced further when Helena describes Moises as, “Something you see shiny in the water.” Plus, Sr. Costa (Leandro Cano) thinks there’s something familiar about him, calling him a kindred spirit, but not quite knowing why.

There’s even a touch of magic about his arrival. When their eyes first meet, Moises and Helena are together on the pier. The moment pauses, accompanied by the magical sound of a tingling bell, as if the Amazon had just waved its own fairy dust upon the couple, and it happens right at the moment when a shooting star passes above. Love develops, and it comes quickly, but then one wonders who will really be the river bride of the title, the impulsive Belmira and her Duarte, or the older and considerably more hesitant Helena and her inscrutable Moises? Perhaps Sra. Costa (Dena Martinez) will see both daughters marry.

But even though there’s a once-upon-a-time that introduces things, whether there’ll be a happy-ever-after is not so easy to say. As events develop, the fairy tale ending to this handsome Kinan Valdez directed production isn’t quite in the mold of a Disney feature. Its bittersweet conclusion, though neither as grim as something by the Brothers Grimm, nor as sad as the original ending to Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, may not be the one you’ll want, but it is the one required. “Life is about navigating disappointments,” the young Belmira states in a rare moment of maturity, which is what The River Bride is really about. Not everything that happens can be planned, and when faced with choices, the right one is not always so obvious. Disappointments will come, those moments always do, but it’s how you react and work past them that matters. That’s what character is.

Told in just under 90 minutes without intermission, among the spells and sorcery told within the folklore of The River Bride, there’s a warm feeling of enchantment that envelops the audience. It catches hold in the way Sr. Costa and Duarte catch their fish when casting their nets out into the river. With a simple though effective set of a wooden pier, a jetty, a doorway to the Costa riverside house, and an effective peek into the home that’s literally carved into the back screen, watching characters move across the atmospheric design is like witnessing a living Amazonian tableaux. Like the legend of the Boto, there’s an overall charm to this highly engaging, professional Arizona Theatre Company production. It can’t help but please.

Pictures courtesy of Tim Fuller

Arizona Theatre Company’s production of The River Bride will continue at Herberger Center, Phoenix until December 3

Posted in Theatre

Go, Dog, Go – Theatre Review: Childsplay, Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe

What delighted Childsplay audiences in Tempe more than six years ago has returned for the holiday season to delight valley audiences all over again. Based on the 1961 children’s book, written and illustrated by screenwriter and protégé of Theodor Geisel, P.D. Eastman, the six rambunctious pups of Go, Dog, Go spring from the page to the stage and bring Eastman’s hugely popular book to colorful life.

Once he’s finished chasing his tail, Jon Gentry as the Master of Ceremonies dog leads the energetic pack in a series of situations aimed at introducing children to concepts they may never have considered, such as colors, their differences, how they’re mixed, and how to have fun with them.

Red Dog on a blue tree,” he’ll announce as Red Dog (Michael Thompson) climbs a blue colored tree. “Blue dog on a red tree,” he’ll continue as Blue Dog (Adam Sowards) takes his position, “And Green Dog on a yellow tree,” as Green Dog (Brynn Lewallen) does the same. But once the scene is set and the three colored trees are occupied, the excitable Yellow Dog (Caitlin Dhuse) suddenly finds herself stranded with no tree of her own, until, that is, the sun rises and she joyfully discovers she’s the same color as that great, shiny ball in the sky. Like the book, the play is indicating how to notice both the importance and the meaning of small things around us all and how we can find our place. And the fun of playing with color is only the beginning.

From there, Gentry’s MC Dog shows us Dogs at Work, Dogs at Play, Dogs on the Water, Dogs under the Water, and with the help of a comically oversized light switch, Dogs who need to go to sleep because night is the time for sleep, not for play.

Whether it was intentional or not is difficult to say, but with music director Rob Witmer’s continual accordion play accompanying the action, much of what you see and hear appears as though inspired from European mime artists, the kind you might catch performing on the street along the Champs Elysées. When MC Dog uses a challenging measuring tape across the stage during Dogs at Work, with that accordion music behind him, the moment, the clumsy use of the tape, and the mime all create a scene faintly reminiscent of something Jacques Tati might have developed specifically for children.

As with Eastman’s illustrated book, the play may be plot free, but there is a running story of sorts revolving around a pink poodle called Hattie (Jennie Rhiner) and her hat with the little flower. When she first struts the stage, she stops and asks MC Dog, “Do you like my hat?” His answer is simple. “I do not,” he responds, adding, “Goodbye.” Undeterred, Hattie later returns with a slightly larger hat, where she asks MC Dog the same question. She gets the same response. After several tries more, Hattie emerges with a seasonally elaborate hat where she once again asks if MC Dog likes what she’s wearing. After a pause, he smiles and says he does, and a bond is formed. In a way that children will get, the play has introduced a theme of developing a friendship. During Saturday afternoon’s matinee, when MC Dog smiled, children cheered and applauded. Lesson learned.

Though not necessarily possessing a Christmas theme, the show incorporates the end of the year holiday season with a colorfully yuletide conclusion, and it’s not only Hattie’s glittering Christmas Tree hat (complete with a star at the top) that lights the stage. Holiday lights flank the sides of the theatre’s tall proscenium arch, a sight that resulted with all kinds of audible “Oohs” from a delighted young audience. And if anyone knows how to have fun when its time to party at Christmas, it’s P.D. Eastman’s six playful pups.

The show is aimed at the same age group as the book, ages 3 to 6, but, in truth, if you enjoy clever theatrics, physical comedy, and vaudeville in general, not to mention six boisterous pups barking in musical harmony, then as a parent you’ll enjoy this highly skilled Andrés Alcalá directed Childsplay production as much the child you’ve accompanied, just for different reasons.

Pictures courtesy of Tim Trumble

Go, Dog, Go continues its run at Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe until December 23

Posted in Theatre

Mercury – Theatre Review: Stray Cat Theatre, Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe

It’s happened again. After opening its 2017-18 season with a play that presented an unusual dilemma for both audiences and reviewers, Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe has repeated the quandary. September brought us Kiss, a drama where anything discussed became a plot spoiler. It begged the question, how do you explore a play’s successes or failures without giving things away? The answer, of course, is you can’t, and shouldn’t. To do otherwise would be to ruin the heart of what you’re discussing for others yet to experience the reveals.

Mercury by the intentionally provocative L.A. playwright Steve Yockey follows a similar path. To explain what happens is to reveal too much. But, like Kiss, you can at least talk setup and themes, and whether they work. And that should be enough.

The setting is near Portland, Oregon, plus, as the program describes with deliberate ambiguity, in one other much warmer place. Before the play moves to that certain area miles away, where mercury would definitely rise, the play introduces its characters and their conflicts on their home turf. This is what can be told.

First, there’s nice neighbor Heather (Samantha Hanna) and the highly-strung, presumably lonely Pamela (Laura Anne Kenney). They’re neighbors, close ones, indulging in a secret, adulterous love affair. Both are married and both are at the point in they’re illicit relationship where everything said and done annoys the other. Not to mention that Heather can’t find her pet dog, Mr. Bundles. As Pamela declares, that has to be the most inane pet name in the history of pets. Heather and Pamela are really not getting along.

Then there’s Nick (Cole Brackney Wandelear) and his live-in boyfriend Brian (Ian M. White) who can’t quite get the hang of commitment. To make matters worse for their relationship, nosy neighbor from downstairs, Olive (Shari Watts), regularly listens to private conversations and feels the need to worm her way into their lives, doing whatever she can to force a wedge between them for her own selfish reaons. Olive is annoying. In fact, if there’s one thing all of those characters have in common, they’re all annoying, to each other and to us. No one is happy, no one has what they want, and as things are slowly revealed, no one is really nice. Something, somehow is going to have to give.

And finally there’s Alicia (Heather Lee Harper) a chatty, ebullient proprietress of a rather curious nearby curiosity shop. Think back to Stephen King’s 1991 novel Needful Things and you’ll get the idea of Alicia’s store. It’s a place where the dusty articles on the shelf have a specific purpose. And they all come at a cost that may include something more than cash. Plus, it’s owned by a mysterious, off stage presence known as Sam (Michael Peck), never seen, only heard, possessing a deep, booming voice that broadcasts over the store speakers. And that’s as far as can be told. Scene changes that come with a loud boom, underscored by a deep bass hum is all you need to know that something threatening, maybe even supernatural, may soon occur, but how and why is for the audience to discover.

The play has its flaws. As soon as we meet her, the increasingly hyper Pamela comes across as a little too forceful; a woman so continually angry and on the edge you have to wonder why someone as seemingly composed and as together as good neighbor Heather would ever indulge in a love affair with a such an extreme type-A character. The play needs that relationship in order to head in the direction where Mercury is going, but, as written, why they were ever together in the first place may be a hard sell, particularly when Heather continually calls the irritable Pamela, ‘honey.’ “Let’s agree not to call me, ‘honey,’” Pamela insists.

Seen at its Friday night preview performance and running at a brisk 90 minutes without intermission, Mercury, as directed by Ron May, is a blacker than black comedy that uses cynicism, gallows humor, and general audience discomfort to get its laughs. Where a drama might only hint at taboos, black comedy points its finger. That doesn’t mean that events are necessarily funny, but by portraying situations and the characters themselves with such deliberate, broad strokes, the more serious subject matters of jealousy, hate, and the willingness to kill makes light of something that is practically unpalatable.

In this respect, it’s safe to say that Yockey has hit his target, even if the subject and its extremely adult approach, setup, and outcome will not be to everyone’s liking. His black comedy revels in things taboo and satirizes them while retaining the seriousness, even the horror. Yes, blood will be spilled. Whether you’ll actually laugh is down to personal taste, but if you do, it will come with great discomfort, so be prepared. But that, I suspect, is exactly what Yockey wants. Mercury is right up Stray Cat’s alley.

Pictures courtesy of John Groseclose

Mercury will continue at Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe until December 9

Posted in Theatre

Newsies the Musical – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s a genuine, theatrical thrill. It’s where a regional production surpasses the enjoyment of either the Broadway show or the National Tour. It happened last year with Stray Cat Theatre’s American Idiot. It’s happened again, this time at Phoenix Theatre.

The 1992 film may have flopped (and with good reason, despite its cult following) but somehow Disney’s live stage version of Newsies the Musical has proved hugely popular ever since it made its Broadway debut in 2012. The regional production you’ll see at Phoenix Theatre may not be on quite the same scale, but in terms of sheer, accomplished entertainment, the kind that unexpectedly hooks you from the opening and immediately reels you in, this Newsies the Musical is unbeatable.

In movie terms, the story of a real-life 1899 newsboy’s strike proved to have little appeal, despite the appearances of big names such as Christian Bale, Ann-Margaret, and Robert Duvall. Somehow, the story of paper delivery boys feeling the pinch of unfair raised prices and forming a union to protest felt too minor. Yet, popularity slowly grew due to the home video market. A theatrical tryout in New Jersey, then a transfer to Broadway proved more popular than expected. What was supposed to be a limited engagement in New York turned into a two year run, then a national tour. Amazingly, Newsies the Musical recovered its cost faster than any other Disney live stage production, a considerable achievement for any company, but even more remarkable when you consider that the other Disney Broadway musicals Newsies surpassed included such grand scale successes as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Now, that’s impressive.

Newsies the Musical takes its cue from the 19th century New York characters, The Dead End Kids and The Bowery Boys, with just a dash of something Dickensian added to the setting. It’s already a hard-knock life for this ragamuffin gang of youthful streetwise newspaper sellers. And when the publisher of the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer (Rusty Ferracane) gets greedy and raises prices at the expense of the boys, the ragtag team of underage sellers get organized and revolt. With names like Specs (John Batchan), Mush (Matthew Dean), Race (Eddie Olmo ll) and Crutchie (Brandon Brown) to name just a few, the boys of the Burroughs take a stand. As intrepid report Katherine (Emilie Doering) states, they’re a bunch of Davids taking on Pulitzer’s Goliath. They’re all about to unite, walk the walk, and tawk the NYC tawk.

On Broadway, above all, it was the ever-moving set design that impressed. The massive, multi-layered, metallic ladders and balconies, representing everything from tenement buildings to factory gates, slid smoothly around the stage, constantly creating in an instant new areas of the city for the boys to explore. Robert Kovach’s local scenic design has impressively captured a similar feel but on a smaller scale, successfully adapting the original look to fit the Phoenix stage. But what impresses the most in director Michael Barnard’s production is more than a workable, eye-catching set, it’s both the casting and James Kinney’s exhausting choreography, echoing all of Christopher Gatelli’s original moves with its leaps, back flips, cartwheels, somersaults, and pirouetting.

Unless you’re already familiar with the score through repeated plays, the music tends to blend. And while they’re workable in the moment, none stand out, with the exception of Katherine’s humorous Sondheim inspired Watch What Happens, terrifically performed by Doering as her character voices her doubts regarding her writing abilities. The ensemble pieces where the boys take center stage with their rousing calls of solidarity are more anthems than songs, and often difficult to tell apart. But what works so well is how the young cast sell them. They’re as aggressive on the boards as they are selling the papers, culminating each number with a crowd-pleasing, inspirational air salute that concludes every large number. Ending each exhaustive dance with fists in the air practically demands applause.

It’s a large cast, all of whom from the youngest to the oldest deliver, but those you’ll remember the most include the above-mentioned Doering’s hugely likable Katherine, Rusty Ferracane’s Pulitzer, who with his graying wig and thick gray beard makes an impressive villain without overdoing the villainous snarls, Chanel Bragg’s vaudeville entertainer Medda Larkin (she tears the house down with her big number That’s Rich) and the show’s central character.

As Jack, the leader of the gang, James D. Gish continually draws your attention. With his shoulder shrugs, his local NYC accent, and his facial expressions often resembling nervous tics that never quit, he’s like a walking, talking time bomb possessing an energy that if pushed might go off at any moment. Compared to previous performers seen in this role by this columnist – including the movie’s Christian Bale – Gish has crafted the character’s most enjoyable portrayal. He’s truly made the part his own.

But there’s another element to consider that makes this Phoenix Theatre production of Newsies work so well. There’s the intimacy of the theatre itself that helps draw audiences closer, something that worked against the show in larger venues. The ability to see everything at close hand not only helps you notice every facial movement or expression with greater clarity, but the occasional meeting of the eye between an audience member and a performer creates a connect not normally associated with larger auditoriums. It’s something only a theatre like Phoenix can accomplish. It can make you feel circumstantially involved.

To date, this Phoenix Theatre production is the easily most satisfying production of Newsies the Musical covered by this column. And certainly, the most enjoyable.

Pictures courtesy of Reg Madison Photography

Newsies the Musical will continue at Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix until December 31

Posted in Theatre

The Man Who Invented Christmas – Film Review

It’s not unusual to read that the way we celebrate Christmas today is the way classic Victorian era author Charles Dickens invented it in his 1843 novella. A Christmas Carol. Close, absolutely, but not exactly true.

Through the power of his written word, Dickens re-invented Christmas. December 25th was already a day of celebration for those who could afford it. But it wasn’t until Dickens published his story of the moneylender, Ebenezer Scrooge and his redemption, that over the years, the holiday eventually developed into a day of celebration for everyone.

In the new comic drama, The Man Who Invented Christmas, Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is seen as a writer desperate for his next literary hit. Despite the enormous successes of both The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, the books that followed in monthly serials were not as popular. Sales dropped for Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit. In fact, readership faltered so much that Dickens found himself in a serious financial bind.

For the record, all of that is true. The new Bharat Nalluri directed film may be a somewhat fictional account of how Dickens wrote his famous novella, but while the focus of the film, the writing process, is presented as a writer’s imagination working overtime, the setup and the outcome are real. By having only six weeks to have the book written, illustrated, then published before Christmas, the film sets up a sense of urgency, a race against time. Dickens becomes an author with everything to lose.

Under pressure to deliver, the writer came up with a foundation for a short Christmas story. It wasn’t fully-baked – he didn’t know where it was going or how it would be told – but something came to him while wandering after dark through the busy streets of London. The author overhears remarks from those he passes that stirs inspiration, particularly from a dour gentleman who dismisses everything around him as “Humbug.” But when presenting his Christmas idea to his publishers in the hope of an advance, the men of business are less than enthusiastic. “Does anybody ever celebrate it anymore?” asks Chapman (Ian McNeice) of Chapman and Hall. After a falling out with his publishing partners, even Dickens’ best friend, John Forster (Justin Edwards) asked the writer, “Why throw it away for a minor holiday?” But Dickens was now inspired. The book had to be written, even if Dickens had to pay for the publication himself.

Historians and students of Dickens will tell you that the idea came to the man in one night; he had the whole thing mapped out from the beginning. All he had to do was get it on paper in time for John Leech (Simon Callow, himself a famous student of Dickens) to complete the illustrations. This turn of events would hardly make for an exciting tale of how the book was written, but by creating story-telling conflicts, moments of doubt and worry, and the will-he-or-won’t-he get it done on time sense of necessity, screenwriter Susan Coyne creates excitement. After all, if anyone knew how to spin a yarn it would be Dickens, why not spin one about Dickens. The author would be the first to appreciate a good tale.

The way the film frames events, Dickens didn’t so much write A Christmas Carol as take dictation. Characters turn up in Dickens’ writing room as living creatures of flesh and blood, talking to him, watching him work, while mouthing chunks of famous dialog that the author then feverishly commits to paper as they speak.

When Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) appears before Dickens expressing his dislike of Christmas, stating how every idiot who mutters, “Merry Christmas,” should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart, Dickens, without having to work for it, has his quote, fully formed. And with the book always in mind no matter where he goes, his cast follow in an ever increasing crowd of characters. When he looks out of the window and down into the streets, Dickens sees Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig standing on the corner, hanging out with Scrooge, waiting for the next stage of the story to be written. “You’d better come and see what just turned up,” states Scrooge to the author, acting as though he is now a permanent resident in the house. Dickens enters his writing room and is faced with the Ghost of Christmas Past floating above the floor, waiting to be included into the next phase of the story. It’s as if Dickens didn’t have to invent anything; it all fell into place before him.

Like many works of Dickens, students of the author will tell you how the inspiration for the man to write came from an exposure to many Victorian era social injustices. A Christmas Carol developed after Dickens became aware of the startling differences between the haves and the have nots, particularly at Christmas. Many families were either too poor or hungry to ever think of celebrating the 25th, while the privileged over-indulged in their merriment, rarely considering the plight of those below, oblivious to the differences. But while all of this is included in the film’s setup, it also draws an interesting comparison with Dickens’ own tormented childhood, suggesting that while Dickens wrote of things observed around him, his own background and relationship with his father, John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) was just as important in forming the backstory to Ebenezer Scrooge.

Sumptuously shot widescreen by cinematographer Ben Smithard, The Man Who Invented Christmas doesn’t simply set the scene for the origins of our secular celebration of the season, there’s the exploration of a brilliant writer’s imagination and the creativity behind it all to take into account, and that makes things all the more enjoyable. Dan Stevens is an unusually manic Dickens, but watching him pace the room as he tries to find the right way to conclude his story, knowing there’s more at stake then just missing a writer’s deadline, adds further to the fun.

When he pounds the floorboards, trying desperately to come up with the right sounding name for his lead character, he explores everything from Snitch, to Scratch, from Scringe to Scridge. For the record, in the days of Dickens, the word “scrooge” was British slang, meaning ‘to squeeze something out of someone.‘ With that in mind, it’s probable that before Dickens even knew where his story was going, he already had the name in mind without the need for fretting. But like much of the comic fantasy we witness during the writing process, it all adds to what leads to a hugely satisfying conclusion.

Today, when we read about how poor office-clerk Bob Cratchit had to request Christmas Day off from work, we tend to see Scrooge as something more than merely insensitive when he grudgingly grants Bob’s wish. Yet at that time in London, and around the world, December 25th was generally a work day. It was by no means considered a holiday. Even if you’ve never considered that the writing of a Victorian author could in any way be responsible for your enjoyment of Christmas, when you raise a glass and give thanks to the founder of the feast at the dinner table, add Dickens to the toast. As The Man Who Invented Christmas shows, if it wasn’t for the writer, there’s a chance you might not even be celebrating the day.

MPAA Rating:  PG Length:  104 Minutes   Overall rating:  8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Coco – Film Review

In the uplifting and ultimately moving new Disney/Pixar animated fantasy, Coco, there’s a small village in Mexico called Santa Cecilia. In that village lives a small boy called Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), and Miguel dreams of becoming a musician. But there’s a problem. While the twelve-year-old can play the guitar, his family has a ban on music. Miguel’s great-great grandfather walked out on the family to pursue a life of writing songs and playing the guitar. He was never seen again. Miguel has to practice in secret.

What sounds like a harsh punishment for something a relative did generations ago, especially when living in the middle of a town surrounded by the sound of music, it’s surprising that all other family members seem quite happy with their lives void of song, except, of course, Miguel. It’s even harsher when Miguel’s grandmother finds the boy’s guitar and smashes it, forcing the boy to steal the classic guitar of a departed idol. But something unusual happens. By stealing that instrument, Miguel is suddenly transported to the Land of the Dead. It’s the time of the Mexican holiday, Dia de Muertos, Day of the Dead, and Miguel is about to experience it from the point of view of the living.

Surprisingly, the film takes its time to get to where it’s heading. There’s a lot of business to cover before Miguel finds himself down under. Often, the kind of conflicts the young boy faces with his family, the family history, and the boy’s desire to play in a local village talent contest is enough to fill a full synopsis, but in Coco, that’s only the beginning. What follows once the boy walks among the skeletal spirits of his departed family members in the afterlife is a colorful, eye-popping adventure that fast becomes a feast for both the eyes and the ears. Lose yourself in Miguel’s adventure and there’s a very real sense of being transported in the way only cinema can achieve.

The adventure in the Land of the Dead takes Miguel through a fully immersive city full of life and color that virtually pops off the widescreen. Watching the film in 3D may do some of that eye-popping work for you, but see it in regular 2D and the colors will look brighter, the scenery and characters more detailed, and the overall admiration of the animated art more satisfying. There’s become a point in computer animation where scenery appears incredibly real. Whether some of the streets or buildings in the design are photoreal or not is difficult to tell, but when characters walk a cobbled road or enter a building, it often looks as though they are passing or walking upon something tangible.

There’s a lot that happens to Miguel, and there’s a lot he’ll learn about love, family, the power of music, and about respect for the departed. What may seem oddly macabre to outsiders about Day of the Dead proves fascinating and touching once understood. “Reach for that dream,” he is told by his departed idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), “Hold it tight, and make it come true.”

The skeletons of Coco (the name belongs to Mama Coco, Miguel’s great-grandmother) are warm-bodied creatures with heart that teach Miguel what it is to be alive. There’s a chance that those who live away from the influence of the Mexican culture and its folk art may immediately think back to 2014’s animated feature, The Book of Life. Like Coco, the celebrated, spiritual holiday and an adventure in the Land of the Dead were central to what happened. In some respects, without having both films playing side by side, Coco, with its bright, festive colors of the skeletons, might even look the same, but further comparisons would be unfair. In Southwestern states, pictures, figurines, and artifacts of the Day of the Dead are prevalent, but less so almost everywhere else. There are many stories to be told with the Mexican holiday as a backdrop, and to always compare every new one with the first one you saw and then dismiss it as a copy is to do yourself a disservice. Make no mistake, Coco is anything but a copy.

MPAA Rating:  PG    Length:  105 Minutes   Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film