With the exception of the singing volcano abomination Lava that preceded Inside Out two summers ago, viewers have been conditioned to expect endearing in-house short films before each Pixar animated feature.
Prior to Coco, however, the animation studio’s bosses at Disney have slotted the depressing, 20-min. Frozen “short” Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, a rehash of the flat graphics and lazy, nouveau Broadway-style songs that made the 2014 feature such a slog.
In an attempt to encourage the most positive mindset for entering the main attraction, this reviewer suggests factoring in how long trailers normally run at your theater of choice (also typically 20 min.) and arriving in your seat as the mind-numbing songs and dumb story are wrapping up.
With the above caveat in mind, there’s a good chance Coco is better than the following analysis suggests. Pixar’s second feature-length foray into a foreign culture (if Brave’s Scottish adventure counts) and first non-Anglo one, the film centers on Mexican preteen Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), the latest in the studio’s long line of exceptions to the family rule who has to leave home to realize his/her dream.
The point of contention here is not being allowed to have any association with music — his clan’s house law ever since the singer/songwriter husband of his great-great grandmother Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) left her and their titular young daughter to pursue a career on the stage.
Not exactly thrilled to continue his family’s tradition of making shoes, Miguel secretly idolizes Elvis-like singer and actor Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) and learns his iconic tunes.
During his pursuit of that passion on Día de los Muertos, supernatural circumstances boot him to the Land of the Dead with a Back to the Future-like timeline to return where he belongs, complete with slowly turning into a walking, talking stack of bones.
Familiar though all of the above is from a basic narrative perspective, the setting and cultural focus of Coco provide just enough freshness to its proceedings to prevent become overly rote. The same goes for its decent character design of clothed skeletons that still resemble their flesh-and-blood former selves and even more so for the Land of the Dead’s appealing colorful palette and its eye-catching neon spirit animals.
Coco’s foremost success, however, is as a primer of the holy day’s customs and celebrations. Between its Land of the Living set-up and Miguel’s adventures in the afterlife, the importance of preserving photos of departed loved ones and their memories shines bright and receives creative boosts through representations of those inter-ancestral relationships at the corpse-run border.
While the plot mechanisms don’t break much new ground, Miguel’s dead hard-luck guide Héctor (Gael García Bernal) has enough nuances to feel close to original and the measured reveal of his ties to certain key players is mapped out well.
The gradual epiphany of why the film is named for Miguel’s great-grandmother is likewise intelligently crafted and makes for a nice change from the usual self-evident-from-the-get-go title.
Grade: B. Rated PG. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: Walt Disney Studios)