The liveliest movie of the season is about dead people: Pixar Animation Studio’s new movie “Coco,” a joyous celebration of memory linking our past to our present.
Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is a 10-year-old boy in a big family in a small town in Mexico. Miguel is being groomed to join the family business, shoemaking, begun generations ago by his long-departed ancestor Imelda. But he has a secret dream: to be a musician like his idol, the late, great singer and movie star Ernesto de la Cruz, his town’s local hero. However, music is forbidden in Miguel’s family, ever since Imelda’s musician husband ran off decades ago to fulfill his dreams of stardom.
On Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, all of Miguel’s living relations gather for a feast to honor their long-deceased relatives, whose photographs grace the family home shrine. Miguel plans to sneak out during the festivities to enter the town’s talent contest — a move thwarted when his stern Abuelita (voiced by Renée Victor) catches him and breaks his homemade guitar. When Miguel tries to “borrow” a guitar from Ernesto’s crypt, he discovers he has entered the spirit world.
Miguel crosses over to the Land of the Dead — where, in a scene reminiscent of the Neitherworld bureaucracy of Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice,” he is reunited with all of the relatives he knows only from their photos, led by the imperious Mamá Imelda (voiced by Alanna Ubach). Miguel must be returned to the land of the living before sunrise, or he will stay there forever.
All it takes for him to return is a blessing from a relative, but Imelda’s blessing comes with a condition: Miguel must swear off music for the rest of his life. He refuses and runs away, determined to find Ernesto (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), who, Miguel is convinced, is Imelda’s long-absent husband. But getting to Ernesto, who’s as famous with the dead as he is with the living, proves difficult — even with Miguel getting help from a trickster, Hector (voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal), who’s desperate for help to get across to see his living relatives.
Director Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”) and screenwriters Adrian Molina (also a co-director) and Matthew Aldrich (who share story credit with Unkrich and Jason Katz) create a vibrant afterlife, brimming with color and light and music. Michael Giacchino has written an energetic score here, and there are great songs — including the poignant “Remember Me” — by “Frozen” songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.
The residents of this otherworld, from lowly Hector to the famous Frida Kahlo (voiced by “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s” Natalia Cordova-Buckley), are all represented as skeletons, and the number of sight gags generated from that fact is literally jaw-dropping. This being a Pixar film, there’s more than comedy; there are plenty of moments that pull at the heartstrings, such as when Miguel shares stories with his oldest living relative, his great-grandmother Mamá Coco (voiced by veteran Mexican actor Ana Ofelia Murguía).
Memory is an important factor in “Coco,” since the memory of the living is what keeps people “alive” in the afterlife. That will be no problem for this movie, which joins some of Pixar’s more emotional recent works — like “Up” and “Inside Out” — among the films that will stick in viewers’ memories for a long time.
* * * 1/2
A Mexican boy ends up in the land of the dead in this lively and colorful animated tale from Pixar.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Wednesday, Nov. 22.
Rating • PG for thematic elements.
Running time • 109 minutes, plus a 21-minute short, “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.”