If an animated movie is going to offer children a way to process death, it’s hard to envision a more spirited, touching and breezily entertaining example than “Coco,” Pixar’s full-throttled foray into the intricately celebratory world of Mexico’s annual remembrance festival Día de los Muertos.
In unfurling a story of dreams and curses, tradition and redemption, all experienced via the otherworldly adventures of a musically-inclined village boy named Miguel, the animation juggernaut has once more shown how its storytelling acumen and visual splendors are still the surest dance partners in movies today.
Though Pixar has been at the top of the animation food chain for decades now, “Coco” (directed by “Toy Story 3” helmer Lee Unkrich, and co-directed by Adrian Molina) represents one significant breakthrough in that it’s the most human-populated story the studio has yet told, even if many of those humans are in exaggerated skeletal form (with appropriately signifying clothes).
From the villagers of fictional Santa Cecilia to the ancestral inhabitants of the Land of the Dead — the candy-colored afterlife megalopolis where most of the story takes place — “Coco” eschews the easy-cute of anthropomorphizing the inanimate or fantastical in favor of characters grounded in the recognizable.
Whether deftly rendering Miguel’s wrinkled, beatific 97-year-old bisabuela (veteran Mexican actress Ana Ofelia Murguia) with a fading memory, or the graceful play of fingers on guitar strings, or even a skull with expressive eyes, it all still leads to the same multiple-hanky magic at which Pixar has usually excelled.
“Coco” starts with another Pixar trademark: the cleverly animated prologue, in this case told through brightly-hued Mexican doilies hanging from clotheslines. They tell the story of how, years ago, a guitar-playing dad left his wife and daughter to make his name, and how successive generations of Riveras — now master shoemakers, a trade learned out of necessity by the abandoned wife, Imelda — banished music from their lives as a bitter response.
That leaves young Miguel (newcomer Anthony Gonzalez), four generations later, with something of a dilemma: feeling the pressure of entering the family business by his indomitable abuelita (Renée Victor, “Weeds”) and loving dad (Jaime Camil, “Jane the Virgin”), all he wants to do is play guitar like his long-passed idol Ernesto de la Vega (Benjamin Bratt). Ernesto is still alive for Miguel, though, in old movies the boy secretly plays in his hidden shrine to the beloved Mexican star.
With Day of the Dead festivities starting up, and the town filling with revelers, mariachis and fireworks, Miguel is eager to prove his talent, and its worth, to his family. But a desperate scheme unwittingly triggers his entry into the parallel Land of the Dead. Suddenly Miguel is visible to the boney apparitions who annually cross a glowing, gorgeous bridge of marigold petals to visit their living descendants, the ones thoughtful enough to put photos of them on their homemade ofrendas, or altars. When no one is left to remember you, Miguel soon learns on his spectral trek, even the dead fade away.
With the aid of a friendly vagabond named Héctor (Gael Garcia Bernal), and his long-tongued hairless xolo dog Dante in tow, Miguel is eager to track down Ernesto to clarify what he believes is the hidden truth of their connection. But getting back to the living realm requires a family blessing, and great-great-grandmother Mamá Imelda (a humorously forbidding Alanna Ubach), ever the proud matriarch — willing to hold a grudge even in death — isn’t about to let Miguel go without a promise never to play music again.
“Coco,” which has the twists and turns of the kind of black-and-white melodramas Ernesto starred in, is in some respects as old-fashioned a story as they come about the close bonds of family; the many zestily-drawn characters speak entertainingly to the push and pull of tradition within that bubble and across generations.
It’s less jokey than other Pixar features, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. Miguel is an eminently likable hero, and when given a shot at performing in the Land of the Dead — a son jarocho-inspired ditty called “Un Poco Loco” — the scene nicely deepens our connection to his quest.
It helps make “Coco,” scored by the erstwhile Michael Giacchino, play like a movie about music, rather than a musical, and the distinction is important as the story unfolds. (The movie’s signature corrida, “Remember Me,” an Ernesto standard, is by the “Frozen” team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, and its use as both an anthem for popularity and tear-jerking familial plea is well-deployed.)
Visually, “Coco” is a swirling, vibrantly hued artistic achievement. It’s everything from a sepia-tinted memory book come to heart-tugging life to a pulsating multi-tinted mural. The stellar design team and animators find room for both the sun-kissed verisimilitude of a homey pueblo, and the razzle-dazzle of elaborately designed folk-art animals called alebrijas that become flying, hot-colored spirit creatures in the Land of the Dead.
In that way the movie, which also peppers its all-Latino voice cast with turns by Alfonso Arau, Edward James Olmos, Selene Luna, Cheech Marin and Luis Valdez, both honors the rich aesthetic heritage of Mexico and keeps these cultural markers from looking like they were merely dusted off and computer-generated for mass consumption.
There’s no getting around that Disney/Pixar hope “Coco” absolves them of past ethnic-representation sins in forging popular movie fare. But the honest feeling coursing through “Coco” is its own marigold bridge in a way, pointing toward a less-homogenized, but no less universal-in-theme future for creators of animated movies.