Pixar movies still make money hand over fist, but it’s hardly a secret that Luxo the lamp isn’t shining quite as bright as it used to. Once upon a time, the company’s animated offerings were genuine cultural events, the best of them (“Ratatouille,” “Finding Nemo”) even meriting comparison to the masterpieces of Studio Ghibli. While their films reliably still clear the low bar set by some of their competition — there’s a world of difference between the noble failure of “The Good Dinosaur” and the artless cynicism of “The Boss Baby” — three entire “Cars” movies have taken their toll.
Now, with sequels becoming more of a rule than an exception, Pixar finds themselves at something of an inflection point in their young history: Are they going to recommit to the bold originality that made them such a powerhouse, or are they going to continue recycling old stories in order to maintain a steady diet of new product?
The answer, it seems, is both.
Fresh and stale in equal measure, “Coco” represents the best of what Pixar can be, and the worst of what they’ve become. Impressively, it often does both of those things at the exact same time, the film illustrating the studio’s limitless imagination, but doing so in the service of a tediously derivative adventure that can’t withstand even a scintilla of scrutiny. This a movie that finds them trying some (long overdue) new things, while also falling into some of their worst habits; a movie that doesn’t come to life until it enters the Land of the Dead.
All of it — the good and the bad — is on full display right from the very first scene, which crams five generations of sordid family history into a prologue that’s as dazzlingly inventive as it is frustratingly schematic. Illustrated in a series of papel picado banners so colorful that you almost wish the whole movie was told in two-dimensional cutouts, 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) tells us the tale of his great-great-grandparents, who split when the husband abandoned his wife in order to pursue a career as a musician.
The fissure that resulted from that selfish decision cut so deep that Miguel still feels it when his story begins 100 years of solitude later. An otherwise sweet old lady, the boy’s painfully underwritten Abuelita (Renée Victor) has banned all music from the traditional Mexican household that she shares with Miguel, his parents, and his senile great-grandmother, Coco. This being a Pixar movie, however, Miguel has a dream. And wouldn’t you know it, his dream is to become the greatest musician since his idol, the late and legendary Ernesto de la Cruz, a statue of whom stands over the square in the center of town. Eventually, Miguel becomes convinced that de la Cruz is his great-great-grandfather, and through a hazy series of events that feel more inspired by “Back to the Future” than they do anything else, he’s spirited away into the Land of the Dead in order to find the guy and get his blessing.
The set-up is as labored as it sounds, “Toy Story 3” director Lee Unkrich and co-director Adrian Molina do everything they can to bring us into this world with the same kind of succinct grace that gave “WALL-E” and “Up” such instant power. It’s not enough. The first 20 minutes of “Coco” are tedious at best and cringe-worthy at worst, the film plunging into a non-white community with the same child-like enthusiasm with which Pixar has previously immersed itself into any number of fantastical realms. As great as it is that Pixar finally created a protagonist of color, the exoticism of Miguel’s world almost defeats the purpose.
This hyper-detailed film displays a clear respect for Mexican culture — three cheers for racially appropriate casting! — but seeing Mexican folklore through such a distinctly American lens results in a nagging sense of otherness. It doesn’t strike this white critic as a fatally grievous problem in a movie that takes some positive steps forward, but the sheer Pixar-ness of the whole thing makes it feel like “Coco” is wearing another country like a costume. This isn’t just a matter of identity politics, even young kids will notice how awkwardly the studio-issue premise clashes with a story that doesn’t support it.
Like a rat who dreams of being a chef, or a superhero forced to blend into suburbia, Miguel’s destiny runs perpendicular to his place in life, but that’s not what “Coco” wants to be about. There are a number of reasons why it movie leaps off the screen as soon as Miguel crosses the bridge into the spirit world, but one of them is that Molina and Matthew Aldrich’s screenplay abruptly shifts its priorities. As a story about destiny and desire, “Coco” is as lifeless as its supporting cast. As a gleefully macabre children’s movie about remembering those who have come before us, it’s a soulful delight. That those two ideas remain as separate as the land of the living and the Land of the Dead prevents this from becoming one of Pixar’s best, but “Coco” finally sings when it crosses over to the underworld.
A fluorescent kingdom that resembles a blacklight Disneyland, the Land of the Dead is remarkably well fleshed out for a place that’s entirely populated by skeletons. They get to live in this casino-like realm and dance the grim fandango for as long as they’re remembered by someone on the mortal coil; once forgotten, poof, they’re gone for good. We get to visit on Día de Muertos, when the dead cross over and visit the loved ones who remember them, a process that involves the dead passing through an airport-like immigration check to confirm that someone has actually placed a photograph of them on their mantle. That bodes well for celebrities like de la Cruz, but not so well for scoundrels like Hector (Gael García Bernal, whose voice is perfect for animation), who dresses up like Frida Kahlo in an amusing attempt to fool the authorities. The Virgil to Miguel’s Dante, Hector leads the boy through a magical underworld, befriending his ancestors — and some truly awesome alebrijes, or spirit animals — along the way.
The naked desperation of the skeleton characters provides the heart and soul of the movie, and it’s genuinely touching to see Miguel partner up with family members he either misses or never got to meet (and to see them meet him in return). When it comes to kids movies about the first stirrings of loss and the bittersweet gift of memory, “Coco” might lack the emotional directness of last year’s “Kubo and the Two Strings,” but it’s redeemed by its perspective. The dead are marvelously designed, their bones so tactile-looking that the film almost looks as though it were shot with animatronic models. Even when a villain is revealed and the story begins to sour, there’s so much to see that your eyes remain transfixed even as your mind starts to poke holes in the premise (why does Miguel need to bring a photograph back if he now remembers an old family member without one? Are people who died before the invention of photographs totally screwed? Does Instagram mean that we’re all going to be stuck down there forever?).
The finale underscores the feeling that the film doesn’t really add up, and it doesn’t help that de la Cruz’s signature song, “Remember Me,” is an eminently forgettable ballad. But by that point, your eyes will be too drunk on visual splendor for your ears to notice. If “Coco” leaves us in a conflicted state, it’s a fitting end for a movie that finds Pixar stuck at a familiar crossroads, unsure of how to handle their heritage. All the same, it’s good to see that there’s still some life in their bones.
“Coco” opens in theaters on Wednesday, November 22.