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The first 20 minutes of Coco is familiar territory. There’s a backstory or prologue that is told in a style separate from the rest of the film. There’s the establishment of the main character’s personality and specific circumstances, including their dreams and wishes, and the limitations and obstacles that stand in their way. Some of it sounds wonky and completely infeasible. Four generations of a Mexican family forbidden from music entirely? How does that work? Then you remind yourself you’re watching a cartoon.

The rest of it is… actually still pretty familiar. Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina’s film hits a lot of signposts and checks a lot of boxes in the Pixar list of narrative tropes. But familiar doesn’t have to mean bad. While it might not take the risks in storytelling that Up, Wall-E, or Inside Out do, Coco reminds us that you can work within a formula and still have it be emotional and effective.

The lion’s share of the credit seems to belong to Molina, who not only has story/screenplay and directing credits but also composed many of the songs. Yes, Coco is a musical, and with some beautiful, incredibly catchy songs, at that. Its Mexican setting and culture suffuses the film, which allows for some breathtaking designs and color, especially when you get to the land of the dead.

Oh, right. As the story goes, our main character accidentally slips into the land of the dead to look for an ancestor, but has to make it back before a certain deadline. Hijinks ensue.

Anthony Gonzalez is adorable as our hero, a plucky young boy with music in his heart. He handles the emotional beats just as well as the musical ones, and they are formidable. Since the similarly-themed Guillermo Del Toro production The Book of Life starred Diego Luna, by law, it is Gael Garcia Bernal who gets to be in Coco, here playing Hector, our hero’s guide in the land of the dead. He, too, is great, his accent having been honed further from three seasons as the lead in Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle. There are a whole host of great supporting players as well, from Benjamin Bratt to Edward James Olmos to Jane the Virgin’s Jaime Camil, from comedians Gabriel Iglesias and Cheech Marin to Alanna Ubach and Natalia Cordova-Buckley, who plays Frida Kahlo. Kahlo in particular is a great character and opportunity for Molina and company to poke fun at themselves, her superseriousness setting the stage for a hilarious setpiece during the climax.

Occasionally Coco can be familiar to a fault. There is a plot twist that Pixar has done more than once, more than twice, even. It’s not terribly surprising and doesn’t entirely justify its existence. The film could’ve been just as emotional without it, but perhaps the filmmakers felt they needed an extra jolt in the plot. But it does not hamper the proceedings, which all culminate in lessons learned and an emotional conclusion that will wring waterworks out of many an audience member’s tear ducts. It’s something Pixar does very well. They’ve had lots of experience, and it serves them well here. Add to that the ingenious designs and the specificity of culture and attention to detail, Coco is another notch in their belt.

Photos from IMDb

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