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Film review: 'Coco'

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Ever since Pixar released their first full-length feature, "Toy Story," back in 1995, seeing any new offering from the studio has been a pleasure. Following that groundbreaking work was a run of films that was nearly unprecedented in terms of both critical and commercial success, and even if some of the magic has diminished in recent years, a new Pixar film is still cause for excitement. They're capable of delivering the best of what modern, mainstream animation can offer.

Pixar's second release this year (following this summer's "Cars 3," which was, let's say, on the lesser end of the studio's output), "Coco" continues their tradition of excellence. It's an enchanting tale steeped in Mexican culture and centered on the celebration of Día de losMuertos (The Day of the Dead) -- a holiday intended to honor and remember relatives who have died.

Twelve-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) longs to be a musician, but because of his family's painful history with the profession (explained through a delightful prologue illustrated with bright papelpicado banners), he's strictly forbidden. Despite his family's wishes, Miguel is determined, choosing to pursue his dream and follow in the footsteps of his hero, a beloved singer and movie star from the 1940's named Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).

But when Miguel's grandmother learns that he plans to enter a talent show during the Día de losMuertos festivities, she destroys the boy's guitar. Left with no better option, Miguel decides to steal a guitar from de la Cruz's tomb and enter the contest anyway. But as soon as he lays hands on the instrument, Miguel is suddenly whisked off to the Land of the Dead, unable to leave unless he's able to get the blessing of his skeletal ancestors to return to the land of the living. If he can't to do so before sunrise, he'll be stuck in the Land of the Dead forever.

Along the way he meets up with Héctor (a charming Gael García Bernal), an affable, down-on-his-luck songwriter who hopes Miguel might bring his picture back with him to place on an ofrendas (an altar upon which families place pictures and mementos of their deceased loved ones to commemorate the lives). We learn that spirits disappear from the Land of the Dead when the last living person on earth forgets them, and Héctor is desperately afraid that his daughter is one the verge of forgetting him completely.

One of the best aspects of "Coco" is seeing characters whose stories don't often get told on screen, and that extends to a voice cast made up mostly of Latin performers. Thankfully the film avoids the problem that plagued last year's "Kubo and the Two Strings" which was a great film, but courted controversy by filling a Japanese tale with white voice actors.

"Coco" takes some time to get going, beginning with a story that seems to hit the familiar Pixar beats of following your dreams, staying true to yourself, and how sometimes parents just don't understand. Miguel is from the same plucky mold as any number of animated protagonists, but as the film eases past the exposition and shifts to the Land of the Dead, things pick up considerably, and the story accumulates a touching emotional undercurrent.

This is a slightly darker tale for Pixar and, appropriately for a story about family, remembrance, loss, and (of course) death, co-directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina (who also co-wrote the script, with Matthew Aldrich) infuse the tale with a sweetly melancholy tone. It's also gorgeously animated, creating a vibrant, richly-detailed world. Seeing the film in 3D isn't necessary, but the format does add an immersive feel, especially in the Land of the Dead settings. I also loved the look of the folk art-inspired alebrijes, neon-colored spirit animals that help guide those in need.

Adding additional flavor is Michael Giacchino's lovely score, which blends seamlessly with traditional Mexican ballads like "La Llorona" and new songs composed by the "Frozen" songwriting team, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.

Only time will tell if "Coco" will stand alongside Pixar's most towering achievements like "Toy Story" or "Finding Nemo," but it's always a joy to watch. Honoring the culture, music, and traditions of Mexico, it's also moving and lovingly-crafted story about honoring one's roots, no matter where they might sprout from.

"Coco" is preceded by "Olaf's Frozen Adventure," a short set in the world of "Frozen," which finds the enchanted snowman (voiced once again by Josh Gad) searching for a new tradition for sisters Anna and Elsa to incorporate into their holiday celebrations. The short was originally conceived as a televised holiday special, and it definitely feels that way. Lasting a whopping 21 minutes, it's not awful, but not terribly memorable either.

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