Most of “Coco” takes place in the Land of the Dead, but the movie never stops overflowing with life. Colors riot and effervesce, Mexican folk-art patterns tease the eye, music and song ride beneath each scene and goose it forward. The movie’s so exuberantly visual that it feels as if you’re sticking your head inside the collective unconscious of an entire culture.
But, yes, “Coco” is a movie about dead people — about what we owe to our long-gone ancestors and what they might owe to us. It’s the latest Pixar project, directed by company stalwart Lee Unkrich (“Finding Nemo,” “Toy Story 3”), and conceptually and graphically it’s right up there with the company’s best work. The story’s slightly less stellar, or, rather, its cart of morals and messages leads the storytelling horse instead of the other way around.
Should you take the kids? Oh, heck, yes, older ones and mature younger ones. And be ready for some interesting conversations afterward.
“Coco” opens in the land of the living with a backstory told via colorful Mexican cutout silhouettes: Generations back, Mama Imelda (voiced by Alanna Ubach) was abandoned by her musician husband and vowed never to allow music in her house or shoe factory again. Cut to the present day, and her young great-great-grandson Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is a born singer and vihuela strummer who has to keep his gift hidden from his parents, his stern Abuelita (Renee Victor), and elderly great-grandmother Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), Imelda’s wizened daughter.
During the annual village Day of the Dead celebration, Miguel manages to cross over to the afterlife in search of that musicianly great-great-grandfather, and here is where most of “Coco” takes place: in a madcap vertical city of the dead that is like an explosion of Mexican culture. The citizens are skeletons, human Day of the Dead figurines with filigreed designs and unreliable bones. Their pets and spirit animals are multicolored fantasias in the style of Oaxacan wood carvings. There’s an Art Deco funicular I want installed in my house. Frida Kahlo makes a guest appearance and she’s about the mildest thing in the movie.
As Miguel journeys through this fluorescent wonderland, where the administrative bureacracy’s as bad as on our side but everyone seems jubilant as long as they’re remembered by their living descendants, “Coco” comes to seem a reproach to our all-American way of death — the denial and repression with which much of our culture deals with this essential aspect of life. In “Coco,” the Day of the Dead isn’t morbid but a kind of communal glue that binds us to each other and to those who came before us. The only part of the movie that’s genuinely scary is the notion that when you’re finally forgotten by the living, you dissolve and blow away in a “final death.”
Heavy stuff, but don’t forget this is the company that contemplated the Void in “Toy Story 3” and gave us the death of Bing-Bong in “Inside Out.” When Pixar’s super-geniuses are cooking, they force a fusion of the marketplace and the metaphysical that is unique in pop culture.
It’s hard to maintain that level of originality over the long haul, and in the 22 years since the first “Toy Story,” Pixar has had its ups and downs. (The company has been owned by Disney since 2006; perhaps not surprisingly, its next two projects are a second “Incredibles” and a fourth “Toy Story.”) “Coco” is an up — it’s an upper, really — whose sentiments are hard-earned but whose narrative is built on predictable bones of heroes’ journeys and homilies. (Also: The animal sidekick this time, a discombobulated street dog named Dante? Not so inspired, at least until the final 15 minutes.)
More than one (grand)father figure presents himself to Miguel, one a superstar (Benjamin Bratt) and the other a tattered jester (Gael Garcia Bernal). If the audience’s allegiance to one over the other is fairly obvious, the message of “Coco” is more muddled. Should our families accept our desire to be different? Should we respect their desire for us to conform? As this movie sees it, the answer is . . . a little of both, maybe. Just hug it out already.
That lacks the boldness of the best Pixar films, even as it makes for a perfectly fine time at the movies. “Coco” is a day-glo firecracker celebrating a country and a culture that has been (and continues to be) much maligned, and it’s at its most vibrant when it journeys into and beyond the shadow of death. That’s a paradox I can live with.
Directed by Lee Unkrich. Written by Unkrich, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich, and Adrian Molina. With the voices of Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 109 minutes. PG (thematic elements, i.e., imaginative contemplations of the afterlife).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.