Everything we know about animated films has been a lie. Years of hands-on education has perpetuated the illusion of simple childhood fantasies, where plucky characters become caught up in whimsical adventures full of color, laughs and catchy music. Their greatest architect, Walt Disney, powered that device so relentlessly that it has fueled nearly all his successors – including the Pixar brand, whose recent “Coco” brilliantly mimics that tradition. But now comes “The Breadwinner,” the closest a cartoon has ever come to removing the barrier separating childhood wonder from the deafening tragedies of the real world, and what its creators find is a power in conviction that challenges all we know about the medium’s elasticity. More akin to “Pan’s Labyrinth” than a mere yarn about goals or quests, the movie throbs with a confidence that is as alarming as it is heart-wrenching. Rarely are such stories aimed at the politically aware, and even more tenuous is the candid insinuation that storytelling can be the key to facing down the nightmares of a world designed to destroy our agile hearts.
The first scene implicates the arc of the story: the underdogs versus the professionals. One of the former is seen in an environment he is clearly a novice in, acting out dramatic scenes in a classroom where stiff delivery suggests blatant disinterest. Greg (Dave Franco) says he wants to become a big movie star but is too caught up in the doubt of his material, and others look on with curious boredom as he mutters dialogue with robotic accuracy. Then emerges from the shadows of the back row a mysterious figure named Tommy (James Franco), who shows others that it is possible to be just as bad on the opposite end of enthusiasm – he reenacts a key emotional moment from “A Streetcar Named Desire” that is so painfully shrill that others cannot wait for the ordeal to end. Yet Greg, sensing his fearless nature, gravitates towards him with curious allure. He admires the audacity, the ability to be so caught up in a performance that everything else – including the judging gaze of the audience – is superfluous. Does it matter that he is untalented, tone-deaf or oblivious? Not in the least. Behind those eyes is a focus that most aspiring thespians would be envious of, regardless of what any of it might amount to.
There is an ideological disconnect between those who study serial killers and those who are assigned to prosecute them. For the latter sorts it’s all about procedure, about connecting dots in a maze of riddles to identify a source that can be seen, touched and ultimately punished. Anything beyond those mechanics fall to deeper thinkers, who inhabit the underlying psyche as a means to find answers to the more probing questions – namely, what drives a person to the methodical precision of committing murder on a mass scale? “Copycat,” a thriller that borrows much of its structure from “The Silence of the Lambs,” features two such characters at the forefront of this descent. One is a psychologist specializing in serial homicide played by Sigourney Weaver, the other a deadpan police inspector played by Holly Hunter. Both lack the patience to work cooperatively with the other, and yet somehow they must, otherwise a recent surge of murders in the San Francisco area mimicking those of famous serial minds from the recent past could continue without interruption, even though they might be occurring with a critical pattern between them.
Any number of recent mainstream cartoons that find their way to theaters are in some way about the importance of family values, but Pixar’s “Coco” is the first in a while that is truly sincere about the concept. Never is there a sense while watching it that artists or filmmakers are weaving an illusion that is at the service of a shallow impulse, nor does it inspire the urge in us cynics to pick apart the formula in secondary exercises (a behavior, I willingly admit, that I used in Disney’s recent “Moana”). Like a drill plunging to the depths of a rich reservoir, here is a wonderful little film that finds a powerful source of inspiration while others barely scratch the surface of their wisdom, allowing many of us to forget we are hardened adults diminished by experience. For a precious few minutes I was not merely a movie enthusiast – I was a kid entranced by a spell, in a place of splendor and sensation, joining characters on a quest that felt created by magic rather than the pens of ambitious scribes. And if the feeling remains true that the studio’s output is as rewarding for adults as it is for children, their latest strikes an even more elusive chord: one that transports the oldest of codgers back to a time when our innocent young eyes were starved for exciting adventures.