How do you make the image of a skeleton look cute and friendly? No doubt that aesthetic challenge was top-of-mind at Pixar for many months before the release of Coco, the latest animated feature from the Disney-owned studio behind the Toy Story and Finding Nemo franchises.
Inspired by the Mexican traditions surrounding the Day of the Dead, Coco's unusual premise is a trip to an afterlife full of grinning skeletons. These are skeletons who strum guitars, paint paintings and ride streetcars, as if they're animated versions of the colourful figurines associated with Dia de los Muertos – but cheerier. If they lack the macabre aspect that can make the holiday so fascinatingly exotic to adults beyond Mexico, they do succeed in peopling a colourful, attractive and kid-friendly vision of life after death.
The Disney empire has always had a knack for taking the bare outlines of global myths and cross-cultural totems and turning them into well-defined Hollywood narratives. The results can be wonderfully inventive or weirdly homogenizing – that indistinguishable parade of continental princesses and singing fish. But Coco, the brainchild of Pixar's Lee Unkrich, is both weird and wonderful as it grandly appropriates the Mexican holiday and turns it into a compelling story about family, ancestry and remembrance.
Miguel (pleasantly voiced by the 12-year-old Anthony Gonzalez) is a little boy who loves to play the guitar but lives in a family of shoemakers who are oddly opposed to music in all its forms. (It's a ban upheld by the powerful matriarch Abuelita in a character richly detailed by the voice of Renee Victor.) Convinced that he is actually the great-great-grandson of the famed singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), Miguel runs away from home on the Day of the Dead – when families visit graveyards to celebrate their ancestors while the departed souls leave the afterlife to spy on their descendants.
As the dead wander among the living, Miguel finds himself magically transported to their realm where he meets the trickster Hector (a charming performance from Gael Garcia Bernal as the movie's skeleton-in-chief). Miguel hopes the dead man will introduce him to Ernesto de la Cruz, but Hector proves himself more desperate to visit his own family back on Earth than to help Miguel.
Miguel is drawn with the plump cheeks and beady eyes that render so many animated humans overly doll-like, but the many skeletons in Coco are fabulously kooky and the land of the dead is something to behold, a twinkling metropolis of hillside barrios and houses on stilts reached by dangling gondolas. The riotous colours of Dia de los Muertos are then carried forward into the fluorescent bodies of the spirit animals that support the dead, although the main one here – a flying tiger – is so overpoweringly large, it feels as if it has swooped in from another movie.
If the visual side of the project is all that one would expect from Pixar, the musical aspect is disappointing: There are simply fewer numbers here than you might want from a story about a boy who longs to sing, and the theme song, Remember Me, is bland.
The point behind the song, however, is a strong one: None of Coco's few flaws can fatally undermine the film because it is, most of all, a smart and enduring piece of storytelling with a satisfyingly twisting narrative and richly complex theme. As Miguel unravels the secret behind his family's ban on music and its relationship with de la Cruz, a story emerges that is both newly inventive in the way it deploys the skeletons and absolutely classic in the way it connects remembrance with immortality. Turns out these talking skeletons have a lot to say.
Coco opens Nov. 22.