Pixar is already being rewarded for its inclusivity on "Coco," the studio's 19th film. The story takes place in Mexico, and when the movie debuted there late last month, it quickly became the country's highest-grossing film of all time.
A strong sense of place isn't the only appeal, though. The animated celebration of Mexican culture and traditions, directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, is also darkly funny, imaginative and, of course, deeply poignant. No studio knows how to elicit a big cathartic sob quite like Pixar.
Despite a slow start overflowing with exposition about the meaning of Día de los Muertos — the annual celebration to honor the dead — "Coco" finds its groove with the story of Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a spirited 12-year-old, who makes music everywhere he goes. He's even fashioned a rudimentary guitar from nails and pieces of wood. The only problem is that even a whistle or a snap of the fingers is strictly forbidden in his home. Ever since his great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife, Imelda, and daughter, Coco, to become a troubadour, all tunes have been prohibited; years later, even as an aged Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) appears to be at death's door, generations of the Riveras still take the ban seriously.
The premise seems a bit outlandish, but it does what it needs to: lays the groundwork for the central conflict when, on Día de los Muertos, Miguel's family discovers his secret passion. After a blowup argument, he runs away and ends up accidentally crossing over to the realm where the dead roam.
This is where Pixar does what it does best — creating fanciful new worlds. In this case, the land of the dead is where remarkably non-creepy skeletons hang out among ostentatiously colorful spirit animals, and a strict bureaucracy dictates which deceased members of society are allowed to travel back to the living world once a year to spy on their descendants. (According to local laws, only former humans whose photos appear on a family altar are allowed to go.)
The movie takes a delightfully nonlinear path from there, but suffice it to say Miguel has to find a way back to the living before the end of the day, otherwise he'll be stuck with the dead forever. Of course, the dead have their own appeal, especially Miguel's feisty great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach), who's still feeling jilted after all these years, and a lonely vagabond named Hector (Gael García Bernal) who becomes Miguel's closest ally. The quest also includes a detour to meet Miguel's all-time favorite musician, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who died in the 1940s during a freak accident with a giant bell.
That moment, and so many others that deal with death in a lighthearted way, dabble in dark comedy in ways that feel fresh for Pixar.
Mostly though, the studio sticks to a formula that works with its moving story about the importance of family. There's also, as always, an adorable sidekick — in this case a kooky stray dog named Dante — and stunning visuals. Some of the animation in "Coco" is so detailed that it looks photorealistic, particularly the exquisite wrinkled face of the elderly title character.
In recent years, Pixar has started embracing the sequel-mania that's taken over Hollywood, even as audiences are getting franchise fatigue. "Coco" floats into theaters like some much-needed fresh air. Not only is it a wholly original story, but it also honors a culture that's so often overlooked by the movie industry. That alone might have made it a hit, but "Coco" has so much more to offer.
Correction: An earlier version of this review misspelled the last name of the main character. It's Rivera.
PG. At area theaters. Contains mature themes that deal with death and dying. 103 minutes.