Conceived as a vibrant celebration of Mexican culture, writer-director Lee Unkrich’s “Coco” is the 19th feature from Pixar Animation Studios and the first to seriously deal with the deficit of nonwhite characters in its films — so far limited to super-sidekick Frozone in “The Incredibles,” tagalong Russell in “Up” and Mindy Kaling’s green-skinned Disgust in “Inside Out.” It’s a point worth making from the outset, not so much for political reasons (although they matter) but to indicate how this effective yet hardly exceptional addition to the Pixar oeuvre finds at least one significant front on which to innovate, even while coloring comfortably within the lines on practically everything else.
Like Remy, the rodent hero of “Ratatouille” who dreamed of working in a French restaurant, 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) has just one passion in life: He wants to play the guitar. Unfortunately for him, Miguel belongs to a family of humble shoemakers where music has been forbidden for generations, ever since his great-great-grandfather walked out on his wife and daughter to pursue a career as a singer. Only in folk tales and cartoons do human beings make such inflexible rules, though it certainly simplifies the movie’s conflict.
In direct violation of the Rivera family rule, Miguel has taught himself to play the guitar, spending virtually every free moment studying the work of local singing legend Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who died young and handsome, leaving behind a trove of classic songs and black-and-white films — of which Miguel has memorized every line, look and lyric, singing along with his best-loved ballad, “Remember Me,” on his handmade instrument.
Like so many Pixar films before it, “Coco” indulges the belief that kids know best, while it’s up to adults to come around. In the case of this particular misunderstood child, Miguel’s job is to persuade his family to change their minds, preferably by performing in the annual Día de Muertos talent show in the town plaza. That would be story enough to drive a live-action movie, but in “Coco,” Miguel’s musical stash is discovered the day before the competition, and his defiance so upsets to his abuelita (Renee Victor) that she smashes the boy’s beloved guitar.
Rather than give up, Miguel sneaks into Ernesto de la Cruz’s mausoleum on Día de Muertos and steals the star’s prized guitar, unleashing a…