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Pixar’s newest animated movie diversifies the studio’s character lineup, if not necessarily its feel-good kind of formula, painting musical journey around the look and feel of Mexico’s Día de Muertos.
Conceived as a vibrant celebration of Mexican culture, writer-director Lee Unkrich’s Coco is the 19th feature from Pixar Animation Studios and the first to seriously deal with the deficit of nonwhite characters in its films — so far limited to super-sidekick Frozone in “The Incredibles,” tagalong Russell in “Up” and Mindy Kaling’s green-skinned Disgust in “Inside Out.” It’s a point worth making from the outset, not so much for political reasons (although they do matter) but to show how this effective yet hardly exceptional addition to the Pixar oeuvre finds at least one significant front on which to innovate, even while coloring comfortably within the lines on practically everything else.
Like Remy, the rodent hero of “Ratatouille” who dreamed of working in a French restaurant, 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) has just one passion in life: He wants to play the guitar. Sadly, Miguel was born into a family of humble shoemakers where music has been prohibited for generations, ever since his great-great-grandfather walked out on his wife and daughter to chase after a career as a singer. Only in folk tales and cartoons do human beings make such inflexible rules, though it certainly simplifies the movie’s conflict.
In direct violation of the Rivera family rule, Miguel has learnt to play the guitar himself, spending literally every free moment studying the work of local singing legend Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who died young and gorgeous, leaving behind a trove of classic songs and black-and-white movies — of which Miguel has memorized every line, look and lyric, singing along with his all-time favorite ballad, “Remember Me,” on his handmade instrument.
Like so many Pixar films before it, Coco indulges the belief that kids know best, while it’s up to adults to come around. In the case of this particular misunderstood kid, Miguel’s job is to persuade his family to change their minds by performing in the annual Día de Muertos talent show, which is set in the town plaza. That would be story enough to drive a live-action film, but in Coco, Miguel’s musical stash is found the day before the competition, and his defiance so upsets to his abuelita (Renee Victor) that she destroys the child’s beloved guitar.
Instead of giving up, Miguel sneaks into Ernesto de la Cruz’s mausoleum on Día de Muertos and steals the star’s prized guitar, unleashing a curse that forces him to travel to the Land of the Dead, where Miguel must find his family’s forgiveness, as well as their blessing, before being allowed to come back home — an Orpheus-like katabasis (as such epic adventures are called) in which he must travel the underworld and back to make things right. The rules of this quasi-religious (but mostly superstitious) Land of the Dead are plenty complicated but stated clearly enough for even little children to follow.
After reuniting with his relatives (who live on in skeleton form, rendered in such a way that they’re far less scary than anything in Tim Burton’s ghoulish “The Nightmare Before Christmas” ensemble), Miguel is torn between obeying his family and trying to find Ernesto, whom he’s come to believe was the wannabe musician who abandoned his family so many generations before. For Mexican audiences — or those who reside in California, Texas, or any place with a visible Latino presence — the cultural iconography of the Land of the Dead should look quite familiar, since Unkrich (who previously oversaw “Toy Story 3”) embraces and incorporates the traditions and folklore of Día de Muertos into the very fabric of Coco movie.
From the altar-like ofrendas where family portraits pay tribute to loved ones lost (whose spirits remain alive in this parallel world, as long as they are remembered by the living) to the brilliant-orange marigold petals that serve as a connecting bridge between the two realms, Pixar’s art department makes astounding use of the holiday’s signature elements. Coco film’s elaborate prologue unfolds across a series of papel picado banners (the cut-tissue-paper streamers that line the streets during times of celebration), calling for a unique style of moving-silhouette animation reminiscent of the great Michel Ocelot. On another note, wonderful, fluorescent-bright alebrijes (or spirit animals inspired by the country’s colorful traditional-art sculptures) keep the dead company — while also giving a convenient excuse for Miguel’s Xoloitzcuintli street-dog partner, Dante, to keep him accompanied on his journey.
So often, cartoon animal companions seem like concessions to the studio’s marketing department, yet Dante serves as both an affectionate nod to Mexico’s oldest dog breed — a scraggly, hairless variety whose daffy expression, googly eyes and lolling tongue evoke Ed, “The Lion King’s” loony hyena, in less scary form — and a sort of hapless underworld Lassie, delivering comic relief and rescue opportunities in the same measure. The character who takes slightly longer to win us over is Hector (Gael García Bernal), a gangly con artist who comes to Miguel’s assistance, hoping that by helping the boy back to the real world, he might be able to cross over as well.
By this now, the Pixar machine has gotten so efficient that watching its films can seem less like hearing a good story than sitting in on a well-polished pitch meeting. In Coco named after Miguel’s oldest living relative, exquisitely seen as a damaged soul covered in wrinkles, there’s a clockwork sense of what every character, detail and sequence is doing (the mariachi band with which Miguel performs reappears later in the film to help him sneak into Ernesto’s compound, etc.), giving Coco movie an almost boilerplate efficiency right up until the climatic confrontation between Miguel and his idol, which doesn’t go at all how one might have thought.
It’s weird for Pixar — whose every employee obviously believes in the importance of creativity, sacrificing time with their own private lives to bring these incredible stories to life — to suddenly turn cynical toward showbiz. Indeed, “nothing is more important than family,” but do Unkrich and co-writers Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina actually believe that, or are they spouting the platitudes that audiences expect to hear?
Though undeniably gorgeous, none of this feels terribly original, from the film’s message to the look of the Mexican underworld, which so recently inspired another computer-animated feature, 2014’s “The Book of Life” A bit too close to that toon for comfort, Coco feels like Unkrich and his story team (so good at perfecting and/or “plussing” Pixar’s projects) watched “The Book of Life” and thought, “Hey, we’ve got a better idea!” or “We can fix this!” and proceeded to make their own Día de Muertos movie.
In any case, it works: Coco’s creators definitely had the perfect concluding in their mind before they had nailed down all the other details, and although the film drags in places, and features a few too many childish jokes (like skeletons who snap off their own arms and use them as nunchaku), the tale’s genuine emotional resolution earns the sobs it’s sure to inspire, inevitably bringing Ernesto’s catchy “Remember Me” back around in a new context (if only the song itself were more worthy of remembering).
In a time when young folks are so easily seduced by celebs, Coco unveils the emptiness of such adulation, poignantly teaching kids to save and respect the memory of their elders while keeping them reminded that the source of true creativity is so often personal.