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'Coco' is a return to form for Pixar (for better and for worse)

A Mexican boy has magical adventures in the land of the dead in Pixar's colorful tale.

A living boy visits the land of the dead in Pixar’s animated movie ‘Coco.’
A living boy visits the land of the dead in Pixar’s animated movie ‘Coco.’Read moreWalt Disney Co.

Pixar's Coco is already the No. 1  animated movie of all time in Mexico, where it opened in time for the Day of the Dead holiday, and where it is still posting robust numbers.

It's easy to see why — the movie is an affectionate tribute to Mexican culture in general and Dia de los Muertos in particular, well-versed in the rituals and traditions and customs associated with the celebration, around which the story is constructed. In Coco, a fatherless Mexican boy named Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez) longs to sing and play guitar, like his late musical hero, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). But music is forbidden in his family, so on the Day of the Dead, he visits the town cemetery to borrow the entombed guitar of his idol.

There, magical events transport Miguel into the land of the dead, where spirits of the departed are preparing to visit the living. Miguel, though, is headed in the other direction — he's determined to meet the great and powerful Ernesto (he runs the show in the afterlife), who also has the means to allow the boy to return to the land of the living.

Miguel has a cute dog with him as he hops from one adventure to another in this magical netherworld, and there are times when Coco echoes El Mago de Oz (others have noted more than a passing resemblance to 2014's The Book of Life, though animated movies turn like supertankers, and this movie was surely in the works long before then).

The movie has enough unique razzle dazzle, though, to make the story its own and to keep your eyes engaged — the bold, vivid colors rival Pixar's popular undersea stories Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. The music by Michael Giacchino is alternately lively and lovely, and the original songs, like "Remember Me," serve important story functions, as well.

In general, Coco is the kind of first-rate technical production you expect from Pixar. On the other hand, it often feels more frantic than exciting, and it counts on moments of humor that often do not materialize (Pixar might consider importing some of the writers from the LEGO movies). Diego, for instance, acquires a guide and sidekick (Gael García Bernal) whose comic relief needs comic relief. And Miguel is a cute little guy, but his constant expressions of love for music and family leave him in a state of petrified earnestness.

There is also a hint of the corporate feel of Cars 3 — a third-act story twist asks viewers to invest in a conflict having to do with song rights and authorship disputes. We're a long way from the poetry and soulfulness of Up and Wall-E. That is, until the later moments, when the writers and animators conjure a sentimental finale during which we learn the reason for the title, and the movie's themes about the power of music and family finally merge to productive effect.