By Michael Phillips 2017-12-15

Chicago Tribune

3 stars

"Coco" is the 19th title under the Pixar umbrella, an umbrella factory now owned by Disney. Is it a great Pixar film? No. But we become ingrates if we expect greatness every time. It is a solidly, vividly good Pixar film. Director Lee Unkrich and his animation and design collaborators pack every delectably overstuffed frame with a swarm of human or skeleton activity. The story they tell is a manic, occasionally erratic but finally warming quest spanning two worlds, the land of the living (a fictional Mexican village, Santa Cecilia) and the Land of the Dead.

The time is just before El Dia de los Muertos. Shrines to deceased relatives fill the haciendas all over the village. Twelve-year-old Miguel lives with a large extended family of shoemakers. As in Pixar's masterly "Ratatouille," going into the family business isn't in the cards for the young hero. Miguel is a secret lover of music; he idolizes the town's most famous son, musical star Ernesto de la Cruz, now dead.

Why must Miguel keep his love of music a secret? The prologue sets it up: Miguel's great-great-grandfather, a traveling guitarist and singer, left his great-great-grandmother to chase his destiny. Out of spite, heartbreak and stubborn family tradition, the matriarchal ban has continued in the Rivera clan to this day. "The only family in Mexico that hates music," grumbles Miguel.

The movie soon takes a leap to the other side. When Miguel purloins his idol's guitar in order to play in a talent contest, something goes flooey and Miguel is cosmically whisked off to the Land of the Dead, a world of fantastic public transportation (very '40s in the trolley design) and endless tall towers and rich fiesta colors. The film, which takes its title from Miguel's sweet, foggy-headed great-grandmother, Mama Coco, uses a marigold flower petal bridge to depict passage from one world to another. Similar world-building notions were explored in "Inside Out," but in "Coco," the alternate universe rests on the idea of a spiritual border crossing, staffed by unfailingly upbeat officials.

The script by co-director Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich throws a lot at the wall to see what sticks. Trickster Hector, one of countless skeletal beings in the Land of the Dead, becomes Miguel's guide, along with Miguel's canine friend from the village, the Xolo mutt named Dante. Determined to meet his deceased idol Ernesto, who is still a big star in the Land of the Dead, Miguel learns lessons about appearances and reality, loyalty and betrayal. And he solves a third-act murder mystery in the process.

Too often "Coco" mistakes chaos and calamity for comedy, and it's a little perverse to prevent this particular story from becoming a full-on animated musical. (Michael Giacchino scores the picture with his usual grace and sweep; one song is by the "Frozen" team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, and others come from Germaine Franco and co-director and co-writer Molina.) But as with "Inside Out," the emotional climax delivers a strong impact, without bathos. And I've rarely seen a more exquisitely detailed piece of Pixar character animation than 97-year-old Mama Coco, a beatific wonder.

The voice work, unsurprisingly, is first-rate, led by Anthony Gonzalez's voice work and musical vocals as Miguel. I wish Hector had better material, but Gael Garcia Bernal gives the devious skeleton a real personality. The late Frida Kahlo pops up in the Land of the Dead, and Natalia Cordova-Buckley gives her a nice, snappish wit. "Coco" may not reach the Pixar heights, but there's an upside to its narrative density and elaborations: Since the movie's beautiful, a second viewing will not be difficult.

MPAA rating: PG (for thematic elements).

Running time: 1:49.

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