Film Review: Coco

Young boy trapped in the afterworld must find a way to return to the living in the latest Pixar feature.
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The artists at Pixar have set such high standards that viewers might take the expertise behind Coco for granted. Breaking new ground in its subject matter while hewing tightly to the studio style, the movie will easily win over younger viewers who haven't yet seen many tales of rebellion, growth and redemption.

Previous Pixar features took place mostly in an idealized Baby Boomer suburbia. Coco shifts the setting to the small Mexican town of Santa Cecilia. Its plazas and churches, open-air markets and food stalls have an exotic flavor, but are used in much the same way as the settings in Toy Story and its kin. Coco will be comfortable even for those who know little about the culture and language.

Director Lee Unkrich and his screenwriters (co-director Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich) introduce Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt) in a brilliant opening montage. The greatest star ever, a flamboyant singer and songwriter who crooned his way through radio and movies, Ernesto died at the peak of his fame while performing his trademark "Remember Me."

A career like Ernesto's is the dream of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), the youngest son in a family that for generations has made shoes. But since a matriarch's musician husband abandoned the family decades ago, music has been banned by the Riveras.

Coco zips through these scenes with Pixar's usual panache, pulling in movie, song and pop-cultural references while piling up jokes and slapstick. Miguel has a secret shrine to Ernesto and a handmade guitar, revealed to his angry Abuelita (Renée Victor), or grandmother, by his pet dog Dante (a hairless Xolo). When he is forbidden to perform in a talent show for the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Miguel decides to run away.

It's the one time of the year the departed can cross over from their spirit world, as long as family members have placed their photos on an ofrenda, an altar. Through a mix-up, Miguel is transported to the Land of the Dead. The only way back is to win the blessing of his departed relatives there, who are also adamantly opposed to music.

Héctor (Gael García Bernal), a conniving scamp, guides Miguel through the Land of the Dead, the two searching for a way to contact Ernesto before dawn will bring an end to their dreams. The afterlife has its own rules and logic, as well as a dazzling visual splendor. It's also a source of Coco's subtle critique of class conflict and an existential dread straight out of Grimms' fairytales.  

Fulfilling a Pixar meme, it turns out that even the dead have feelings—not only that, they can die again, the "final death" adding one more deadline to a plot filled with ticking time bombs. Coco goes very dark, dark enough to cite Peter Pan and Val Lewton and film noir, and by necessity it turns spiritual as well.

Everything in the movie is impeccable—the animation, settings, acting, pacing, music, emotions, humor. The filmmakers tiptoe through a cultural minefield, faithful to a fault to customs and traditions, praising the likes of Frida Kahlo and Pedro Infante even while joking about the work they did. It's brimming with sharp asides, like the early Apple computer a character says is a "devil box filled with nothing but lies."

But the best Pixar features are more than well-made cartoons. Not so much with Cars or Brave, but with Toy Story and Inside Out, they are works of art that transcend animation. Coco falls somewhere in between. It's intelligent and heartfelt, but also a bit predictable, a bit incurious.

At one point Miguel auditions with other musicians, prompting a breathless montage of performers good, bad, bizarre, stupendous, jaw-dropping, delirious. It's like the "why superheroes shouldn't wear capes" sequence in The Incredibles, and it's so great, funny, fast and smart that it leaves you wishing the rest of the movie could be that good.

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