“COCO” — 3 stars — Voices of Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renee Victor; PG (thematic elements); in general release
While so many films build around a character’s personal quest to chase dreams, “Coco” takes a different angle, one that will ring especially true to anyone who has ever heard the reference about the hearts of the children turning to their fathers, and vice versa. “Coco” isn’t just family friendly — it’s family-centric.
The plot follows the story of Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a Mexican boy who travels to the Land of the Dead in search of a long-lost ancestor. Miguel aspires to be a musician, but unfortunately he comes from a family of shoemakers who despise music. A few generations earlier, Miguel’s great-great-grandfather left his family to pursue a music career, and his progeny have been trying to erase him from their bitter history ever since. Only Miguel’s great-grandmother Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia) remembers him, and her memory is fading fast.
Caught between his dreams and his loyalty to his family, Miguel tries to pursue the former on the sly while keeping the latter out of the loop. But when his domineering grandmother discovers his guitar and smashes it, Miguel finds himself without an instrument and no way to compete in an upcoming talent show in the nearby Mariachi Square.
So, on a dark evening during the annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival, Miguel steals into the crypt of the town’s legendary mariachi Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), hoping to nab the icon’s celebrated guitar from its shrine. But as Miguel hits his first chord, the instrument transports him to the Land of the Dead.
To return home, Miguel has to receive the blessing of an ancestor, but all the boy’s ancestors are angry about his musical aspirations and refuse to send him back unless he promises to give up his dreams. So Miguel decides to seek out the one ancestor who might be a little more sympathetic to his plight: the great-great-grandfather who started the bad blood in the first place.
“Coco” becomes a colorful and entertaining journey through both the Land of the Dead and the rich cultural tradition surrounding the Mexican Dia de los Muertos holiday. Along the way, Miguel meets a ghost named Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who helps the boy understand that to remain in the Land of the Dead, you must have someone in the Land of the Living who remembers you (and makes sure your image is preserved in the customary Ofrendas that are used for the holiday). Once that connection is broken, forgotten ancestors fade even from their postmortal existence.
True to Pixar form, “Coco” enhances its strong storytelling with brilliant visuals that inspire the imagination and, in this case, celebrate the Mexican culture. “Coco” is a wonderful film to see and experience, and in a year that has felt so mediocre in terms of family animation offerings, it’s an easy recommendation, even if it doesn’t quite reach the level of recent Pixar efforts such as “Inside Out.”
“Coco” is rated PG for thematic elements; running time: 109 minutes.