Disney-Pixar's Coco was more enjoyable three years ago when it was titled The Book of Life and came from Twentieth Century Fox.
Both animated features spring from Mexico's Dia de los Muertos celebration, the annual "day of the dead" when departed relatives are honored, so they'll show the way to the afterlife. Each movie spends most of its running time there.
Only the Fox flick takes full advantage of the occasion visually, evoking the macabre iconography more authentically than Pixar's Tim Burton-esque skeletons with dislocating bones. The Book of Life was produced by Guillermo Del Toro, the superior fantasist.
Coco should have the upper hand in Mexican musicianship since The Book of Life's soundtrack leaned on mariachi covers of Mumford and Sons, Radiohead and Rod Stewart. Unoriginal but catchy.
In contrast, Coco's original canciones are aurally repetitive and slight on comedy and emotion, at least until the finale when the movie's title finally makes sense. The song shoved in our ears here is Remember Me, a bland ballad from Frozen composers who won an Oscar for Let It Go. Not this time.
Most disappointingly, Coco simply isn't much fun. Especially when an already lifeless tale of death takes a third act detour into murder, passion and an intellectual property rights dispute, a telenovela for kids. That finale does pack an emotional punch but it's a twisty, thorny path getting there.
The hero is Miguel Rivera, well-voiced in whine and song by Anthony Gonzalez. Miguel dreams of being a musician like his idol, the late singer/movie star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). The boy's family refuses, believing music to be a curse. A musician deserted Miguel's great-great grandmother. Their photograph on the Rivera family shrine has his face torn off in shame.
Miguel defies them, running away to enter a talent show and attempting to steal de la Cruz's sacred guitar from his crypt. One Kubo-like strum sends Miguel into the afterlife where mortals aren't allowed. The longer he stays, the deader he'll be.
Miguel needs the blessing on a deceased ancestor to return home. His great-great grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach) will do it if he'll renounce music. Miguel puts dos and dos together and guesses the great de la Cruz is the musician who deserted her. He'll surely give Miguel his blessing, no guitar strings attached.
That's already a lot of plot to handle and not half of where Coco goes. There are striking visuals — a flower petal bridge between worlds, florescent spirit animal guides — but not enough to entirely enchant. Better jokes would help. Better songs even more so.
Coco is an opportunity that keeps waiting to happen, a movie about a colorful, underrepresented culture with a haunted holiday and earworm rhythms. It's so respectful that vibrancy suffers. Coco is a bright pinata of a movie that breaks and nothing falls out.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.
Directors: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Cast: Voices of Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renee Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguia, Jaime Camil, Sofia Espinosa
Screenplay: Adrian Molina, Matthew Aldrich
Rating: PG; thematic elements
Running time: 109 min.