After a few iffy efforts – at least by its own lofty standards – Pixar follows the marvelously mind-bending 'Inside Out' with a Mexico-set adventure that bubbles with wit and daring. Effortlessly gliding between kid-friendly spectacle and heart-tugging emotion by way of surrealist touches and a hilariously specific recurring joke about Frida Kahlo’s unibrow, 'Coco' is a goofy joy from start to finish.
Committing full bore to its setting – Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival – 'Coco' introduces its hero, 12-year-old Miguel (voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez), as a frustrated musician growing up in a family where music is banned. On the eve of the festivities, he pays a visit to an ofrenda, his clan’s ancestral altar, where an encounter with a magical guitar sends him spinning into the afterlife on a quest to find his great-great-grandfather, a puffed-up matinee idol, and win his blessing to become a musician.
Cue songs, color and a shady prankster called Héctor (voiced by Gael García Bernal) with a speciality in physical comedy. There’s a scrappy canine sidekick, skeletons galore and beautifully imagined barrios crammed into this undead fantasia. It’s a glorious tribute to Mexican tradition that tips a sombrero to the animated work of Ray Harryhausen and Hayao Miyazaki, too.
The story occasionally seems a little too deferential to its folkloric inspirations. Giant spirit animals swoop in and out of the action, shifting characters from A to B a touch too conveniently. They feel like they belong in a different movie, possibly one where they team up with the eagles in 'The Hobbit' and set up a new form of Uber.
These are smallish grumbles, though. In the spirit of writer-director Lee Unkrich’s last movie, 'Toy Story 3', genuinely tough themes are tackled (illegal immigration and dementia) without the mood ever souring. If it’s a tier below the studio’s very best, its freshness still bodes well for Pixar’s future. As sweet as sugared churros and as vibrant as a fiesta, 'Coco' is a charm.