Coco
Directed by: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gale García Bernal, Renée Victor
Rated PG for thematic elements
1 hr. 49 min.

Pixar’s Coco does something unique. Out of the studio’s 19 films, it’s the first to completely immerse a story in a Latino setting. Taking its cue from The Book of Life (2014), Coco travels south of the border and applies its wizardry to the color and passion of a small Mexican village called Saint Cecilia and its otherworldly counterpart, the land of the dead.

Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) and his family are close-knit. From great-grandma to the young son, all generations share life together happily in their family compound as the town’s shoemakers.

One problem, however. They hate music. There’s a long history behind this. The tale of a great-great-grandfather who abandoned his wife and daughter for a career as a singer, and a wife who has passed down her disillusionment for four generations. As a result, no music is allowed in their house.

Miguel, however, is bitten by the singing bug. Inspired by Mexico’s musical idol and the village statue that carries his name — Ernesto de la Cruz — Miguel fights with his Abuelita (Renée Victor), and secretly plans to enter the village talent contest held on Día de los Muertos. After Abuelita discovers his plan and destroys his guitar, Miguel desperately raids Ernesto’s tomb to find a replacement.

In a flash of magic, he finds himself transported across the bridge that Mexican folklore claims is opened between the living and the dead on Día de los Muertos. His only hope of return before being forever transformed into a walking skeleton is to receive a blessing from one of his dead relatives. But who, and what secrets do the dead hold?

There is no denying the considerable work that has gone into producing Coco. The screen is vibrant with color and soaked in Mexican tradition. It also includes the abundance of Mexico’s musical catalog. Against this backdrop, one would hope that the story would be equally rich.

Not quite. Yes, there are moments of humor and heartfelt warmth. But despite the inclusion of so many details of Mexican life — right down to the texture of the pastries and tamales — Coco still feels as if it’s on the outside looking in. It captures the feel of Mexican life with a broad brush, but doesn’t quite get under the skin of its characters.

While the plot deals with dark themes like death, betrayal, abandonment and the pain of being forgotten, the story seems to suffer from an overwhelming appeal to sentiment. It often feels cloying, as if the film’s get-out-of-jail-free card is to tug continuously at the heart strings.

Remember, however, that Coco is a story about music. Despite his family’s protests, Miguel is infected with a love for music, and so are the film’s producers. It’s why I can forgive them for a less-than-stellar story, because the music in Coco energizes the film.

From the harmonic “Remember Me” to the rock fusion of “Jálale,” and from the upbeat guitar of “Un Poco Loco” to the toe-tapping minors of “La Llorona,” Coco is brimming with the pulse of Mexican life, the soundtrack for the actual story behind the story.

No doubt, Coco breaks barriers, both in filmmaking and animation. Its immersion in another culture and language is one more step toward acknowledging the existence of Latinos as an important part of daily life. By introducing Coco, Pixar is coming to terms with the commercial and cultural value of Latinos.

So while Coco has its flaws, it’s a game attempt to move across borders and bring another perspective to animation. Most important, it gives us a new rhythm by which to enjoy both music and film. Miguel must sing to be happy, and Coco is his vehicle to reach across the aisle, make us sit up and share his enjoyment.