Pixar Animation's Coco is a visually vibrant adventure about the importance of family, heritage, and culture, set against the backdrop of Mexico's annual Day of the Dead, a holiday in which family and friends gather to remember, celebrate, and pray for departed loved ones. The film is a bountiful feast for the eyes, especially when the story crosses over into the kaleidoscopic Land of the Dead, a dazzling megacity populated by spirited -- rather than scary -- skeletons. But Coco is also about seizing the moment and taking advantage of the opportunities that life brings, regardless of the consequences.
Coco centers on Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old boy living in Mexico who dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol, the late Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a popular movie star who sang and strummed his way through countless romantic film adventures. Unfortunately, Miguel's family hate music so much that they forbid it being played in their home; according to family lore, his great-great grandfather was a troubadour who abandoned his wife and daughter to pursue a career as a performer. When Miguel is caught playing a guitar, his grandmother smashes it and forbids him from entering a talent contest that coincides with the Day of the Dead celebration. But Miguel is determined, so he breaks into the mausoleum where de la Cruz is buried and steals the legend's prized guitar. When he strums it, he is magically transported to the realm of the dead to meet his departed ancestors, including his great-great grandmother Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach), as well as a scraggly skeleton named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) who says he knows de la Cruz and can introduce him to the singer. There's just one problem: If Miguel doesn't secure a blessing from Mama Imelda before sunrise, he will be stuck in the Land of the Dead forever. She's willing to comply, but her blessing comes with the condition that Miguel seek forgiveness by giving up his musical ambitions. Of course, Miguel refuses and sets off to meet de la Cruz, with whom he feels a close kinship, in the hope of wrangling a blessing from him instead.
Coco is arguably Pixar's most visually striking movie; it's a rich tapestry of eye-popping delights, and during the film's first half the sheer power of its onscreen inventiveness is enough to engage us and distract from its rather routine story. The skeletons, the movie's cleverest creations, are genuinely appealing. Although they are all bones, they still have distinct faces with expressive eyes, and they wear colorful, character-defining clothes. There are plenty of imaginative sight gags involving them -- the most humorous one involves an embarrassed Miguel walking in on an artist painting a "nude" model -- but the novelty wears off after a while, and we're left with a skeletal story that struggles to keep us captivated. A couple of well-timed twists help, including a murder, but the flabby midsection lacks energy.
Thankfully, a rousing, heart-tugging conclusion puts the story back on track and will leave audiences mostly satisfied. The voice cast are uniformly fine, with Bratt a standout as the pompous performer and Bernal providing the real heart and soul of the movie as the lovable loser Hector. Coco works best when it focuses on the importance of family, less so when it zeros in on Miguel's musical aspirations. Coco isn't quite top-shelf Pixar (unlike director Lee Unkrich's previous feature, Toy Story 3), but it has heart to spare, which more than makes up for its somewhat shaky bone structure.