One of the pleasures of a new Pixar feature is the chance to be amazed by what animation can do. Sometimes you witness a big, bold breakthrough, like the computer-assisted rendering of fur in Monsters, Inc., of water in Finding Nemo, or of metal in Cars. The innovations in Coco are no less satisfying for being of a more subtle kind.
The grain of leather and the rusted folds of grooved metal have a rough, almost tangible quality. Human bones, hairless dogs and orange flower petals look uncannily (but not too uncannily) real. There are moments of cinematic rigor — when the animators mimic the movements and focal effects of an old-fashioned camera in actual physical space — that will warm any film-geek’s heart. Not to mention the Frida Kahlo-inspired musical number with dancing papaya seeds.
Coco is also one of those Pixar movies that attempt a conceptual breakthrough, an application of the bright colors and open emotionalism of modern, mainstream animation to an unlikely zone of experience. From the very beginning, the studio has explored the inner lives of inanimate things like lamps and toys with a tenderness we usually take for granted. It has also summoned the post-human future (Wall-E) and the human unconscious (Inside/Out) with breathtaking ingenuity. And now it has set out to make a family-friendly cartoon about death.
Don’t let that scare you or your children away. There is a murder (revealed in the third act) and a fatal church-bell-related accident (witnessed in the first), but the afterlife in Coco is a warm and hectic place, more comical than creepy. The story takes place during the Day of the Dead, when according to Mexican tradition (at least as interpreted by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, who directed the screenplay written by Mr. Molina and Matthew Aldrich), the border controls between life and death relax and the departed are allowed temporary passage to the land of the living. A young boy named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) makes the trip in reverse, which is not to say that he dies, but rather that his living self, through one of several metaphysical loopholes that the movie explains as it goes along, is transported into a fantastical world of specters and skeletons, who hold fabulous parties and raucous outdoor concerts.
Almost as mesmerizing as that magical world is the Mexican village of Santa Cecilia, Miguel’s hometown, in which he is part of a prosperous clan of shoemakers. The cultural vibe of Coco is inclusive rather than exoticizing, pre-empting inevitable concerns about authenticity and appropriation with the mixture of charm and sensitivity that has become something of a 21st-century Disney hallmark. In Coco movie, the importance of family — the multigenerational household that sustains and constrains the hero — is both specific and universal. It’s what explains the particular beats of Miguel’s story and what connects him to viewers regardless of background.
He shows a certain kinship with other well-known recent cartoon characters. A talented musician in a family that bans music, he is a little like Remy, the Ratatouille rat whose kin were hostile to his artistic ambition, and like Mumble, the poor penguin in Happy Feet. Miguel’s genealogical quest — a search for roots, lost ancestors and information that might explain who he is — resembles Dory’s journey in Finding Dory. The sidekicks who accompany him, animal and (formerly) human, are drawn from a familiar well of archetypes, and the final round of lesson-learning and reconciliation hits notes we have heard many times before.
But if Coco doesn’t quite reach the highest level of Pixar masterpieces, it plays a time-tested tune with captivating originality and flair, and with roving, playful pop-culture erudition. Miguel’s main musical role model — and the true source of the family restriction on musical expression — is a long-dead crooner and film star named Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). In life and in death, he incarnates venerable ideals of romance and wounded machismo, or at least their show-business incarnations. (Cruz’s greatest hits and movie videos shape part of the texture of the film, the very same way the old Woody’s Roundup show did in the Toy Story series.)
The purer embodiment of that tradition is Héctor (Gael García Bernal), a ragged, forgotten ghost who befriends Miguel. What links Héctor with de la Cruz is a lurid story of passion, betrayal and longing. Their lives and deaths are a ballad whose meaning and melody Miguel must learn. In doing so, he will understand the thread that connects him to both of them, as well as the sources of the anti-musical animus that runs so wildly in his maternal line.
Coco is the name of Miguel’s great-grandmother, who turns out to be the core of the tale. Her mother, Imelda (Alanna Noël Ubach), is a furious matriarch on the other side of the grave, while Coco’s daughter, Miguel’s Abuelita (Renée Victor), is a no-nonsense flesh-and-blood autocrat. Their determination to forbid Miguel’s guitar results from heartbreak, and from the instrument’s association with the waywardness of men.