Already the highest-grossing film in Mexican cinema history, Disney-Pixar's "Coco" will be an easy target for those accustomed to decrying Disney's powerful cultural appropriation. Setting aside the irony of that carpetbagging Mexican haul, "Coco" takes up Mexican cultural traditions within the Pixar tradition of working hard to get it right, whatever their current "it" may be. This time, it's Día de Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, dramatized in the story of a boy in search of himself by way of an ancestor.
In the fictional Mexican village of Santa Cecilia, 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (a pitch-perfect Anthony Gonzalez) idolizes the town's dearly departed claim-to-fame, singer-songwriter-movie star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Miguel wants nothing more than to become a singer like his hero, but the other Riveras despise music, having been burned by a once-upon-a-time absent father who chose music over family. They promise Miguel a life working for the family's thriving shoemaking business, but in secret, Miguel keeps his eye on the prize of musical stardom.
A bit of magical realism later, Miguel finds himself in the Land of the Dead, meeting ancestors and hunting for his idol. A chance meeting with sad singer Héctor (Gael García Bernal) leads to a deal: Héctor's help in getting to Cruz, in exchange for Miguel bringing Héctor's photo back to the land of the living, so his soul can be remembered before he fades to "the final death," being forgotten by the living.
"Coco" can be a bit wearing in its plot mechanics -- such as a tendency to keep contriving rules and adding obstacles -- but overall, the movie drains the viewer in the best ways: the "museum fatigue" of so many wondrous sights, so much color and music, and the emotional fatigue of having been put through a sentimental wringer. Particularly in the land of the dead and despite plenty of dark scenes, the spectacle carries with it a palpable wow factor. And the music, orchestrated by Pixar stalwart Michael Giacchino, gets a songwriting boost from the featured tune "Remember Me" by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez ("The Book of Mormon," "Avenue Q").
Director Lee Unkrich ("Toy Story 3") and co-director/co-screenwriter Adrian Molina (also a Pixar vet) attend to a harmonious set of themes, about vocation and ambition ("Seize your moment"), the role of family ("That's what families are supposed to do...support you"), and the meanings of life and death. Despite similarities to Fox's 2014 "The Book of Life," "Coco" also takes a positive cultural step for mainstream American entertainment, with its all-Latino voice cast. As obvious and familiar as this thematic territory can be, "Coco" deals with it tenderly and sweetly, in ways that will send audiences young and old out with a song in their recently warmed heart.