With its 19th film in in 22 years, Pixar Animation Studios has finally addressed the lack of ethnic diversity in its movies, having already tackled another deficiency with 2012’s Brave and 2015’s Inside Out, a pair of pictures that featured strong starring roles for female protagonists.
At a time when xenophobia runs rampant, and talk of building a wall along the Mexican border continues, it’s nice to see a family film take pains to humanize our neighbors to the south without coming off as a polemic. But then, Pixar—the most successful movie division within the Disney umbrella—has rarely been accused of preaching. Rather, it’s easily the best purveyor of animated entertainment with universal appeal.
So it’s unfortunate that Coco—Pixar’s colorful celebration of Mexico’s people, cultures and traditions—lacked the emotional core that’s the hallmark of some of the studio’s finest efforts such as Wall-E and Up. Despite a typically gorgeous adventure that journeys from the Land of the Living to the Land of the Dead and back, Coco ranks with recent efforts like 2015’s The Good Dinosaur and the aforementioned Brave, minor works that, while dazzling to look at, failed to fully engage my heart.
Starring a rebellious 12-year-old, aspiring singer and self-taught guitarist Miguel Rivera (voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez), the film opens in the fictional Mexican village of Santa Cecilia during Día de Muertos (or “Day of the Dead”). Recalling Remy, the rodent who dared to become an unlikely Parisian chef in Pixar’s 2007 gem, Ratatouille, Miguel is a defiant dreamer, stubbornly pursuing his passion despite the protests of his closed-minded family. Following in the footsteps of his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced with great pomposity by Benjamin Bratt), the lad desperately longs to share the hidden talents he’s nurtured in an attic hideout.
Alas, he’s descended from a tight-knit clan of shoemakers who’ve forbidden songs from their home for generations, a ban that’s strictly enforced by his grandmother, Abuelita (Renée Victor of Showtime’s Weeds), whose grandfather abandoned his wife and daughter to pursue a career as a mariachi. Needless to say, it doesn’t go over well when Miguel sets out to prove that making music can be beautiful, rather than shameful.
Fueled by his love of the black-and-white musicals starring de la Cruz and the silky ballads that he sang in them, Miguel plans on persuading his family by performing in Santa Cecilia’s annual Día de Muertos talent show, taking place in the town square where de la Cruz got his start. But Abuelita won’t have it and she smashes the boy’s guitar after discovering her grandson’s secret shrine to his hero.
Undeterred, Miguel hatches a plan to sneak into the mausoleum housing de la Cruz’s remains—but more importantly, the star’s guitar, which Miguel intends to steal for use in the competition. However, the theft unleashes a curse that sends him and his endearingly daft dog, a hairless Xoloitzcuintli named Dante (already a star of his own short film, Dante’s Lunch), to an imaginatively realized underworld populated by cuddly cadavers, including Héctor (Gael García Bernal, star of Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle), a skeletal con artist who claims to know de la Cruz, whose star shines even brighter in the afterlife. In exchange for introducing our protagonist to his deceased hero (who may hold the key to Miguel’s return to the Land of the Living), Héctor enlists the boy’s aid to ensure that his living family doesn’t forget him on the Other Side.
Speaking of family, Miguel has just as many dead kin as living ones, and he spends much of his adventure evading the remains of Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach), his great-great-grandmother and founder of the Rivera’s shoemaking business, since she’s the source of the family’s music ban. She’s also the mother of the titular Coco (83-year-old pro Ana Ofelia Murguía), Miguel’s oldest living relative, whose deeply etched wrinkles are a thing of beauty.
It’s just a shame that the storytelling can’t quite match Pixar’s superbly rendered visuals. Director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and co-director Adrian Molina (who both had a hand in the film’s script) too often teletype their plot’s developments, leaving the strings exposed as they pull them. And for all the focus on music, the original score by Michael Giacchino (who’s provided the emotional backbone of some of Pixar’s best, from The Incredibles to his Oscar-winning work on Up) is atypically underwhelming, as are the original songs courtesy of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the Academy Award-winning songwriters behind Disney’s Frozen. It says a lot that a maudlin ballad entitled “Remember Me” would prove so unmemorable. Kind of like the film. ◆
Starring the voices of Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Jaime Camil, Alfonso Arau, Herbert Siguenza, Gabriel Iglesias, Lombardo Boyar, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Selene Luna, Sofía Espinosa, Edward James Olmos and John Ratzenberger. Written by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, based on a story by Lee Unkrich, Jason Katz, Aldrich and Molina. Directed by Unkrich and co-directed by Molina. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and the suburbs.