By definition, a family film should appeal to young and old alike. Take Coco, the latest computer-animated gem from the Pixar juggernaut, which is visually dazzling, packing every animated frame with vibrant colors and meticulous background detail.
Still, the primary strength of this coming-of-age adventure is its ability to sensitively tackle tougher issues such as mortality, family legacies, and the afterlife from a child’s perspective, without feeling watered down or heavy-handed.
That balance is achieved through a story about the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos — meant to honor deceased family members — and specifically by following Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a small-town boy who dreams of becoming a famous guitarist, even though it goes against his family’s wishes.
Rebellious yet resourceful, the youngster embarks on a journey that literally involves life or death over the course of the three-day weekend in question. He accidentally finds himself in the bright and joyous Land of the Dead, where he encounters some of his ancestors, meets a desperate performer (Gael Garcia Bernal) with hopes of his own, and seeks his musician idol (Benjamin Bratt).
Unfortunately, Miguel’s desire to probe his family’s past is endangered by a need to cross back over to the living before it’s too late.
As directed by Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3), the film provides a vivid an imaginative rendering of the Land of the Dead iconography — a majority of the characters are skeletons, after all — even if the bilingual screenplay sometimes overdoses on eccentricities.
The film also pays loving tribute to Mexican folklore and traditions such as food, music, fashion, holidays, and more, without indulging in too many clichés or stereotypes.
While children will enjoy the lively pace and quirky characters, they might also relate to Miguel’s curiosity that proves both haunting and enlightening — and could even learn a lesson about genealogy. Then comes the third-act twist that unspools a powerful message about forgiveness, family ties, and the power of memories that should resonate across cultural and generational lines.
It might draw comparisons to Dallas-made The Book of Life, another recent animated charmer about Dia de los Muertos mythology. However, both efforts stand out in distinct ways, by finding beauty in the macabre.
Within a familiar framework, Coco is both amusing and touching, using a celebration of death to prompt a fresh perspective on life.