Mamas don’t let their babies grow up to be mariachis. That’s one thing Miguel (voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) knows for sure: Ever since his great-great-grandfather abandoned the family decades ago to pursue la vida musical, every descendant has shunned both his tainted memory and any stray melody unwise enough to drift past a window. They are shoemakers now, not dreamers. But Miguel, a tenacious 12-year-old with a single dimple in his cheek and an unhushable song in his heart, can’t help it; his fingers ache for a guitar. And like every hero on a quest, he will find one. Though unlike most — especially in the shiny world of Pixar, whose Technicolor critters, toy cowboys, and anthropomorphized race cars often seemed to come in every shade but brown — he is also proudly, unmistakably Mexican.
Coco crosses another Rubicon most animated movies don’t: dealing frankly and even joyfully with death. In fact, the whole story line (co-written by several company veterans, including Adrian Molina, who also codirects) is centered on Día de los Muertos, the annual celebration honoring the sacred bridge between the living and the dead. Or in Miguel’s case, a literal one; in his single-minded pursuit of the instrument belonging to his hero, spangled troubadour Ernesto de la Cruz (a suave, tricky Benjamin Bratt), the boy slips over to the other side. Technically he’s still alive — but if he can’t win an ancestor’s approval and find his way back by sunrise, his day pass will become permanent. While the relatives he’s only known from old photographs aren’t strictly thrilled to see him, they’re still dazzling to look at: jangly-bright skeletons (in a concession to artistic license and kids’ nightmares, they do have eyeballs) who’ve carried on for years in their own busy, kaleidoscopic underworld. For friendlier allies he has the faithful Dante, an adorably dim street mutt with a tongue like a broken yo-yo, and an accidental chaperone named Hector (Gael García Bernal), a lonely muerto desperate to be remembered back home.
There’s an undeniable charm to all of this, and more than a few moments of pure Pixar inspiration (a droll battle of the bands, lovable ding-dong Dante). But the vividness of the narrative never quite matches the riotous swirl of color and culture on screen — and neither do the songs, sadly, for how central they are to the story. Instead, Coco settles into something gentler but still irrefutably sweet: a movie that plays safe with the status quo, even as it breaks with it. B+