(CNN)Pixar gets back to its roots with "Coco," which wraps two universal themes -- pursuing one's dreams, and how we remember loved ones -- in a colorful, culturally specific package. As the animation powerhouse has increasingly turned to the comfort of sequels, this look at the afterlife represents a lively original concept, one that powers through its flat patches with a whole lot of heart.
Pixar's lively 'Coco' hits the right notes
"Coco" uses the Mexican Day of the Dead (or Día de los Muertos) celebration as its narrative spine, with a young boy crossing over into the Land of the Dead, where he's surrounded by outlandish skeletal figures. But the bones of the story are quite sturdy, tapping into a strong vein of emotion that recalls the cross-generational charms of movies like "Up" or "Inside Out."
Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) has grown up in a family that shuns music because his great-great-grandfather walked out on his wife to pursue his musical ambitions. The ban is vigorously enforced by the lad's multigenerational family, which includes his ancient great-grandma, Coco, whose mind is gradually being lost to dementia, a plot point handled with sensitivity and grace.
Alas, Miguel yearns to play the guitar, so much so that in his zeal to play, he rebelliously defies his family, stealing the guitar of the revered late singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a legend in their small town.
That act has surprising, magical consequences: Miguel is cast into the colorful Land of the Dead, where his late relatives are assembled, even though (thanks to their skeletal construction) everyone seems to be literally falling apart.
There, Miguel encounters Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who, like the other ghosts, wants to cross over to look in on the living, the twist being that these specters cease to exist when nobody is left who remembers and honors their memory.
Directed by Lee Unkrich ("Finding Nemo") with Adrian Molina, a Pixar story artist making his directing debut, "Coco" is beautifully rendered, creating an alternate world that recalls the detail of "Monsters Inc."
The story, however, feels chaotic in stretches, and fleetingly hard to follow while laying down its elaborate rules after Miguel crosses over. Basically, he has to find an ancestor willing to provide his or her blessing and send him back to the living, only without imposing any conditions that would rob him of his dreams.
Yet if the movie at times labors during that midsection, it comes together beautifully at the end, exhibiting the sort of depth associated with Pixar's best efforts. Nor does it hurt that the film incorporates a moving song from "Frozen" composing team Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez. (As a further boost, Disney will affix the new short "Olaf's Frozen Adventure" to its release.)
Granted, Miguel's secret isn't as significant as Elsa's, but like many Disney protagonists, there's a commonality in his determination to be himself, even if that puts him at odds with his family. "One cannot deny what one is meant to be," he's told.
The genius of Pixar's virtually unparalleled run of early hits -- before a few recent misfires and modest disappointments, like "Cars 3" and "The Good Dinosaur" -- relied on its ability to create complex children's stories, tapping into concerns associated with childhood in a manner that's as appealing to adults as kids.
"Coco" doesn't fully scale the heights of its predecessors, but where it counts, the movie hits almost all the right notes.
"Coco" premieres Nov. 22 in the U.S. It's rated PG.