PLOT A young Mexican musician must journey through the Land of the Dead to achieve his dream.
CAST Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt
RATED PG (thematic elements)
BOTTOM LINE Pixar’s well-intentioned Latino-themed effort isn’t one of its strongest.
Meet Miguel, the young Mexican hero of Disney-Pixar’s “Coco.” Miguel lives in a poor barrio with a family of shoemakers, but he feels destined to make music. To achieve his dream, Miguel must journey into the Land of the Dead and seek out the spirit of Mexico’s greatest-ever musician, who just may be his ancestor.
“Coco,” in case you couldn’t tell, is Disney-Pixar’s attempt to appeal to Latinos, who for years have been among the most frequent yet underserved moviegoers in America. “Coco” is filling a void, and it takes pains to get everything right. Its main voice cast is Hispanic, as is screenwriter Adrian Molina, who co-directed with Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”). It features a range of Mexican music, some by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, of “Frozen,” and the dialogue is an English- Spanish blend. It even includes a cameo by Mexican folk artist Frida Kahlo.
At its best, “Coco” has all the ingredients of a great Pixar movie: a likable hero (Anthony Gonzalez plays the voice of preteen Miguel) and a colorful fantasy world. The skeleton characters are friendly-looking, not ghastly, and the air is filled with Day-Glo alebrijes, or spirit animals. There’s also a clever if slightly dark plot that involves the famous singer Ernesto de la Cruz (a suave Benjamin Bratt) and a hard-luck musician, Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who never got his due in the living world.
That said, “Coco” feels like the kind of cultural appropriation we still dread from Disney: well-intentioned but highly reductive. “Coco” makes sure to cross every item off its Mexican checklist — tamales, sombreros, a shot of what looks like tequila — but that’s not the same as immersing us in a culture. What’s more, the filmmakers are afraid to have too much fun here, lest they offend. The skeleton citizens of the Land of the Dead, for instance, must go through a checkpoint to visit the living — a prime opportunity for a one-liner about immigration, but nobody dares risk it.
In the end, “Coco” feels a bit like the old Donald Duck feature “The Three Caballeros” (1944) or the Mexican Pavilion in Orlando’s Epcot Center — inoffensive, inauthentic and not without its charms.