Having recently given us three “Cars” films of diminishing interest and the well-intentioned but lackluster “Good Dinosaur,” Pixar has turned its Luxo lamp to illuminate novel new material in “Coco.” It’s the animation factory’s first musical and its initial exploration of multicultural material (unless you count the French cuisine of “Ratatouille,” which I don’t).
This love letter to Mexican traditions and Latino arts is welcome, innovative in using bits of Spanish without subtitles and, frankly, overdue. It sounds and looks great, and the Pixar “brain trust” of John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter have returned to creating a cartoon that isn’t just for kids. While it doesn’t rise to the level of “Up,” it reaches higher than much we’ve seen from the studio lately.
At the center of things is 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a lifelong music lover whose family has forbidden him to strum a guitar and sing. While he polishes a mariachi’s shoes, Miguel explains how his great-great-grandparents split up when the husband left his wife to pursue his calling as a musician. The grievance is still going on today, a century later, keeping Miguel in a frustrating cone of silence.
The opening 20 minutes focus on the family friction and the setting up of altars saluting relatives passed on for the annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration. It’s a fairly low-key warmup. But when Miguel tries to borrow legendary music star Ernesto de la Cruz’s guitarra from his crypt, he finds himself crossing a magical bridge to the spirit world. As he meets the dead, the film comes alive.
It turns out that spending time with skeletons in a neon-rainbow promised land can be a lot of fun. His tour guide is Hector (Gael García Bernal), who introduces him to the area’s customs and characters. It’s a sort of purgatory where the residents remain until the last memory of them is lost from the world of the living. Hector, who feels nervously close to vanishing, agrees to help Miguel if the young tourist reminds the living about him when he returns home to his family.
The tone isn’t as macabre as the creepy-comic “Nightmare Before Christmas.” This is a warm celebration of the ancestors whose shoulders we’re standing on. It’s a generally happy place where living humans are scary and celebrities are still famous and adored. The residents include walk-ons for recognizable versions of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, comic actor Mario “Cantinflas” Moreno, the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata and the masked luchador “El Santo.”
There’s also a big appearance of Miguel’s music hero De la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a charming egocentric whose signature song is “Remember Me.” Super-fan Miguel suspects he may be his disgraced great-great-grandfather, and the source of his own musical talents. (Gonzalez is a very gifted young singer.)
Given Pixar’s commitment to story, things are a good bit more complicated than expected. A fair number of plotting surprises transform the narrative into a good-guy/bad-guy third act drama in another classic trope of the brand. And, as usual, it emphasizes family commitment, though given Miguel’s numerous relatives, this element gets almost too much attention.
The notable oddity of the film is a logical lapse concerning how memories among the living offer an enduring afterlife in the land of the dead. That gap makes the finale confusing as events that would lead to a significant erasure occur without comment. The baffling plot hole doesn’t cripple the film, but nor does it help.
“Coco” moves Pixar into pleasant new territory. But it feels like a passable place-holder until the studio moves ahead with what promises to be its best sequel since the “Toy Story” series, “The Incredibles 2.”