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With magic and beauty, Pixar’s ‘Coco’ celebrates family, music, life and death

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Deadheads: Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) finds himself in the Land of the Dead surrounded by his ancestors in Pixar’s “Coco.” (Disney/Pixar)
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Pixar’s 19th animated feature film, “Coco,” which opens Wednesday in Bay Area theaters, may seem a little lightweight compared to heart-wrenchingly profound as things like “Inside Out,” “Wall-E,” “Up,” or the “Toy Story” films.

But its simple themes of family, music, life and death, especially in these troubling times, are more than enough to make it an endearing, enduring favorite.

Add to that its magical array of visuals — an entire “Land of the Dead” is realized — and its kind, loving representation of Mexican culture, and “Coco” becomes a force for good in the world.

Sure, its screenplay by Pixar up-and-comers Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich settles back on a few broad shortcuts to get things going and to wrap them up, but the emotional content here is genuine.

Talented 12-year-old Miguel, voiced warmly by Anthony Gonzalez, idolizes the “greatest musician of all time,” the late Ernesto de la Cruz.

But his family has forbidden all music after Miguel’s great-great-grandfather walked out on his great-great-grandmother to become a musician. This seems a little harsh after so many generations, but we’ll go with it.

The “Coco” of the title is Miguel’s great-grandmother, who would be the little girl that the no-good musician left behind; she’s still alive here and barely remembers anything, but Miguel loves talking to her.

In any case, his Abuelita, voiced by Renée Victor, smashes his guitar on Dia de los Muertos and he runs away. With the help of some magical realism, winds up in the Land of the Dead, where the deceased walk around as skeletons with eyeballs.

There, he meets ne’er-do-well Hector (voiced by Gael García Bernal), who agrees to help Miguel find de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), if Miguel will put up Hector’s photograph, allowing him to cross to the land of the living during the holiday.

Indeed, the writers and co-director Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”) have effectively explained the rules of Dia de los Muertos in a way that works well with their story and respects the actual rituals.

The many wondrous sights and sounds of the Land of the Dead include a bridge from one land to the other, made entirely of flower petals, wonderful songs, both traditional and new, and multicolored spirit animals.

A dog called Dante, who helps Miguel, is an adorable doofus with an unbelievably floppy tongue.

It could have been fairly easy to get Miguel back home, but the writers have cooked up various ways to keep him there, including a big, nasty villain, and the old “tricked into recording a confession for all the world to hear” chestnut.

Indeed, “Coco” could have been a little shorter, a little simpler, but because it’s drawn out, it also gets to spend a little more time in this amazing world.

The truly touching thing about “Coco” is that, like “Toy Story 3,” it accepts death as part of life. In an industry that regularly aims to make us forget about such things, simply acknowledging it — and celebrating it — has a profundity all its own.

REVIEW
Coco
3 1/2 stars
Starring (voices): Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Renée Victor
Written by: Adrian Molina, Matthew Aldrich
Based on a story by: Lee Unkrich, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich, Adrian Molina
Directed by: Adrian Molina, Lee Unkrich
Rated: PG
Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes

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