Producer: Darla K. Anderson
Director: Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Writer: Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich
Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Noel Ubach, Renee Victor, Jaime Camil, Gabriel Iglesias, Ana Ofelia Murguia and Edward James Olmos
Studio: Walt Disney Studios
Dia de Muertos—the Day of the Dead—comes a little late this year in the form of Pixar’s latest animated film, “Coco.” Like “The Book of Life,” which Guillermo del Toro presented three years ago, it’s centered on a trip by a living person to the abode of the deceased on a mission to find someone—a variant of the Orpheus myth—and the difficulty of getting back after completing it. And the traveler is again a fellow who wants to be a singer-songwriter despite family pressures to go a different route. Like that earlier picture, moreover, it’s colorful and exuberant, but not exceptional, though it boasts a good third-act twist before finishing with a thoroughly predictable conclusion.
Despite the title, the screenplay’s focus is actually on Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a twelve-year old kid whose family, under the direction of his imperious aunt (Renée Victor), has—because of a tragedy in the clan’s past (his great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife and young daughter in search of a fame as a singer)—forbidden all music among them, enlisting all the family members in a shoe-making business instead. Miguel, however, has secretly taught himself to play the guitar and is determined to perform in an upcoming talent show. He is also devoted to his great-grandmother, Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), the daughter of the man who deserted his family. She seems to be at death’s door—and, as it turns out, is the key to Miguel’s search.
Miguel becomes convinced that his great-great-grandfather was Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who fulfilled his ambitions to become the greatest singing star in Mexican history. He decides to take Ernesto’s prized guitar from his hallowed tomb to play in the contest, unleashing a curse that requires him to travel to the Land of the Dead in half-living form in order to obtain the blessing of his great-great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Noel Ubach) in order to return to the Land of the Living.
But Miguel is also determined to seek out Ernesto and bond with him—a difficult business given the man’s celebrity. He is fortunate that his loyal dog Dante has passed over with him—undergoing an important transformation along the way. He also enters an uneasy alliance with sad-sack Hector (Gael García Bernal), who never gets to return to his loved ones for the day’s celebrations back among the living because no one remembers him, but who claims to know Ernesto and agrees to help Miguel in his quest, in return for being recalled by the boy later.
To describe more of the plot would be unfair—part of the pleasure consists in watching the surprises unfold, even if not all of them make complete sense in the complex of rules the writers create for the relationships between the dual worlds Miguel inhabits. There are occasional moments that are touching, even sad—like one where Miguel and Hector visit one of the latter’s friends, who is fading into nothingness because he has been totally forgotten by the living. But this being a Disney-Pixar product, you can rest assured that all will work out well for almost everyone—except those who deserve to get their comeuppance.
You can also depend on Pixar to provide glorious visuals, which are imaginative in their depiction of the Land of the Dead, whose residents are skeletons whose bones move about like parts of puppets on strings, and of the brilliant backgrounds, like the bridge of bright orange petals over which the spirits cross to visit their relatives and friends on the other side for the day’s celebrations. The presence of phantasmagoric spirit animals adds to the dazzling effect, which extends to the transformation of Dante that turns the mutt, which begins like so many previous Disney dogs, into something far more remarkable. The voice work throughout is fine without being outstanding, but the musical interludes are mediocre (the signature song is “Remember Me,” but you probably won’t.)
There’s a lot about “Coco” that feels familiar—not only because of its similarity to “The Tree of Life” but to the “follow your dream” trajectory reminiscent of many other animated films (including Pixar’s). But the visual splendor certainly makes it an enjoyable confection, with the Latino ambiance an added bonus.