Pixar has often proved to have a deft touch with stories of families. The studio’s “Up” (2009) elegantly traced the joys and sorrows of a long marriage. “The Incredibles” (2004) showed the heroism it takes to be a parent. “Finding Nemo” (2003) dealt with a father’s love and his desperate concerns for his son.
“Coco,” written and directed by Lee Unkrich, can be added to that respectable list with its heartwarming story of a young boy searching for his roots.
Young Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) lives in a rural town in Mexico. While his Abuelita (Renee Victor) wants him to learn about his family’s shoe business, he longs to be a musician despite a generations-long family ban on music. The boycott began when his great-great-grandfather left his wife and daughter for his music career and never returned.
Fittingly, the film opens as the townspeople prepare to honor their ancestors on Día de los Muertos. Miguel has created a secret space in his attic to play the guitar in the style of his idol, the late musician Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). When Miguel recognizes de la Cruz’s guitar in a family photo, he knows music is in his blood and decides to tell his family about his dream as they ready the altar for their deceased relatives.
In response, Abuelita angrily breaks Miguel’s homemade guitar, so he tries to take de la Cruz’s instrument from a mausoleum. But when the boy strums it, he is magically transported to the Land of the Dead. Because he has stolen from instead of given to the dead, he is stuck with them unless he can find one of his ancestors to give him a blessing to return to the land of the living.
Like Dorothy’s trip to Oz, “Coco” gains momentum when Miguel arrives in the Land of the Dead. The towering, glowing place, filled with images of skulls, is a stunning sight. As he ventures into the world in search of de la Cruz, he meets the mischievous Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who agrees to help the boy if Miguel will promise to honor the dead man once he returns to the land of the living.
While “Coco” is mostly populated by skeletons, it’s far from scary. Their loose bones comically swing around and fall away while mystical spirit animals, silly side characters, a wild street dog and even an appearance from Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) keep the tone playful and curious as Miguel explores his surroundings.
The colorful visuals are matched with lively music, especially de la Cruz’s signature song, “Remember Me.” Written by “Frozen” songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the tune takes on greater significance as Miguel learns the importance of keeping the dead alive.
What “Coco” • 3½ stars out of four • Run time 1:45 • Rating PG • Content Thematic elements