The exciting Land of the Dead is where ‘Coco’ really comes to life

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Hector (left, voice of Gael Garcia Bernal) helps Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) navigate the Land of the Dead in “Coco.” | DISNEY-PIXAR

We spend a lot of time in the Land of the Dead in Disney-Pixar’s “Coco,” and good luck having THAT conversation with the little ones — though I suppose most animated films prompt questions from the younger kids, from “How come those fish can talk?” to “Aren’t rats supposed to be yucky?” to “Do my toys come alive when I’m not around?”

This time around, the questions are going to revolve around the skeletons — the colorful, magical and in some cases absolutely lovable skeletons — that carry on with their lives, sort of, once they’ve crossed over.

Directed by Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”) and co-directed by Adrian Molina (co-writer of the screenplay as well), “Coco” is a bouncy and heart-tugging adventure.

“Coco” is told through the experiences of 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), who lives with his loving but strict family in the (fictional) village of Santa Cecilia, Mexico.

Miguel dreams of becoming a famous entertainer like his hero: the legendary Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a singer-songwriter and old-timey movie star.

Unfortunately for Miguel, his family forbids even the mention of music. Generations ago, Miguel’s great-great grandfather abandoned his wife and their little daughter Coco for a career in music, and he was never heard from again.

The Riveras became a family of accomplished shoemakers. Now that Miguel is 12, it’s time for him to don the apron and join the family business. And NO MUSIC, EVER!

Geez. Little Coco is now Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), Miguel’s great-grandmother. She’s 97 and drifting into senility. And the whole family is STILL opposed to even turning on the radio now and then? Talk about holding a grudge.

As you’d expect from a Pixar production, the visuals in “Coco” jump off the screen, making the town of Santa Cecilia pop with life and energy. But the real fun and imagination and cinematic creativity can be found across the bridges, the bridges spanning the worlds of the living and the dead.

During the annual celebration of Dia de los Muertos, as the families in Santa Cecilia gather in the cemetery to celebrate those who have passed on, the spirits of the deceased mingle with them — but of course the living cannot see them.

Except Miguel. Through a freak occurrence, he is able to see the dead, and they can see him — and it’s a tossup as to who’s more freaked out. (Well, probably Miguel.)

Things get even more bizarre when Miguel, still a live boy, crosses over to the Land of the Dead: a sprawling, neon, exciting and intimidating metropolis populated by deceased humans and wondrous alebrijes, or spirit animals.

The living dead in this land are skeletons, but they still kinda resemble their living selves, still sound like they sounded when they died.

They also have eyeballs. It might have been an insurmountable challenge for the animators to create likable, sometimes even lovable, skeletal dead beings with black sockets where once they had eyes.

Believing the great Ernesto de la Cruz is in fact his maligned great-great grandfather, Miguel sets out to find him, with the help of the down-on-his-luck clown jester Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who may or may not be a good guy.

The quest to find de la Cruz takes many a detour, as we learn the rules of the Land of the Dead. For one thing, you can stay here only as long as you are remembered by the living. When you are forgotten, you disappear, into … the next world, whatever that may be.

Meanwhile, Miguel is running out of time and will soon be unable to cross back home. (Marty McFly knew time was running when images faded from photographs; Miguel knows his time is running out when he can see the bones of his fingers, then his arms … soon he’ll be all skeleton!)

“Coco” isn’t a musical, but it features multiple musical numbers, including repeat performances of the catchy ballad “Remember Me,” which became the most popular song in Mexico and remains huge in the Land of the Dead, and “Un Poco Loco,” an entertaining ditty performed by Miguel (who is then joined by Hector) at a talent show in the Land of the Dead, and yes, they have talent shows in the Land of the Dead.

One of the most hilarious supporting characters in “Coco” is Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley), who remains a trailblazing and revered artist and keeps those famous eyebrows in the Land of the Dead. Plot-wise, there’s really no essential reason for Frida Kahlo to be part of all this, but the movie is richer for it.

The voice acting (and the singing) from the multi-generational cast is first-rate, starting with young Anthony Gonzalez as our hero Miguel. Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renee Victor, Natalia Cordova-Buckley and Edward James Olmos are all fantastic.

“Coco” is full of life, especially when we’re hanging out the with the dead.


Disney-Pixar presents a film directed by Lee Unkrich, co-directed by Adrian Molina and written by Molina and Matthew Aldrich. Rated PG (for thematic elements). Running time: 104 minutes. Opens Wednesday at local theaters.

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