Pixar's latest original movie, Coco, is a little about music, a little about death and a lot about family. It's a whimsical, touching and heartfelt celebration of Mexican traditions and folklore, and it's one of the more original stories the acclaimed animation studio has told in years.
Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old boy living in a small Mexican village, loves music. The problem? His family has outright forbidden playing or even enjoying it. Ever since his great-great-grandfather walked out on his family in order to pursue his musical career (or so the family legend goes), both he and music itself are banned topics of conversation. This is a family that treats Mariachi band members as villains.
So Miguel plays guitar in secret, idolizing the late musician Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) and learning what he can from old black-and-white videos of the superstar. That changes when Miguel learns of an opportunity to perform in front of a crowd during Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the annual Mexican holiday that's all about remembering family and friends who have died.
Miguel is desperate enough to play for an audience that he steals De La Cruz's famous guitar from its resting place in the star's mausoleum, an act that mysteriously sends him to the Land of the Dead. There, he meets deceased members of his family, a mischievous but oddly charming trickster named Hector (Gael García Bernal), De La Cruz himself and, interestingly, beloved Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. But he's the only living boy in town, and if he can't find his way back home by sunrise, he will become a skeleton and be stuck in the afterlife forever.
While Coco's aesthetic leans heavily into traditional Día de los Muertos imagery, the Land of the Dead is also a landscape in which Pixar is able to stretch its creative muscle. We see the Day of the Dead from "the other side," starting with the Customs-esque security checkpoint that determines whether souls are allowed to cross over to look in on their living relatives.
Coco never shies away from tackling the topic of death head-on. At times it's treated lightly (the way in which De la Cruz died is played for laughs), other times the tone is serious and even dark, but the subject is always presented as a fact of life that even younger kids (including members of its audience) should be able to handle. Loved ones die -- some before they're old -- but they shouldn't be forgotten.
The imaginative journey through the Land of the Dead is full of fantastic sights and creatures, but the heart of Coco is in its characters and, importantly, its culture. Mexican traditions are treated with respect, and a stellar cast of Latino actors brings the wonderful story to life.
Since music plays such a large role in the plot, it's a relief that Michael Giacchino delivers a soundtrack that evokes all the right emotions. But it's "Remember Me," a lyrical track written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (who together also wrote the music for Frozen), that will stick with you the longest.
Coco teaches valuable lessons about the importance of remembering those we have lost, but even viewed as a purely entertaining adventure, there is a lot to love in this movie about death.
PG (for thematic elements). 109 minutes. In wide release.