Exhibit No. whatever in the continued softening of Pixar Animation Studios: Coco, the company's 19th feature film in 22 years, and a film that would be the pride and joy of literally any other American animation studio. And yet even after so many years of such unexceptionally fine output, I keep wanting them to still be the creative powerhouse of Finding Nemo and WALL·E and Up.

Maybe those days will come again, but it's not with Coco, a very lovely movie that contains not one single surprise in its comfortably loose 109 minutes. It's no secret that Pixar films take it as their God-given duty to make you cry; Pixar films do not always foreshadow in such extreme detail the exact nature of how they plan to do that, with like a solid 25 minutes to go before it happens. And that's on top of the by-now formulaic combination of sentiment and comedy giving way to a more action-oriented climax. The saving grace of it is that Coco is an altogether trim and tidy movie that works perfectly well in reference to itself; the other Pixar films that I'd say are hovering right around the same "what a nice, funny, forgettable movie that was" level, Brave and The Good Dinosaur from 2012 and 2015 respectively, bear obvious scars of their painful production histories, but Coco seems to have gently glided right on through (the only notable story to come out during its production was that Disney proved unable to copyright the name of the Mexican holiday Día de Muertos as a film title - and even for Disney's lawyers, that one was crass), and you can see it in the smoothness and polish of the storytelling.

So anyway, how about that story: in the small town of Santa Cecilia, the Rivera family has been making shoes for four generations, ever since matriarch Imelda Rivera was abandoned by her musician husband with a small daughter. That daughter is now the impossibly ancient Mamá Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía), and Imelda's wrath has led to a family-wide ban on music in all its forms - even listening to it. This is the horribly galling state of life for 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), Coco's great-grandson, who has one and only one goal in life: to become a great guitarist, just like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the famed singer and actor - born in Santa Cecilia! - who died in 1942 due to a freakish accident, but who lives on through the albums and movies that Miguel jealously hides and hungrily plays in a small forgotten cubbyhole in the roof of his family's shop.

The boy's frustration at his family has grown so intense that by the time of the Day of the Dead, he wants nothing at all to do with any of this "ancestry" bullshit, and after an accident breaks the decades-old picture frame holding Imelda's photo on the family ofrenda for the holiday, he discovers that his great-great-grandfather in that photo was holding the distinctive calavera-designed guitar owned by the very same Ernesto de la Cruz. Suddenly faced with the very real possibility that he's the descendant of the greatest musician in history, Miguel sneaks into de la Cruz's mausoleum to steal that very same guitar, to play it in the Day of the Dead music competition. This is not the day to go desecrating graves, though, and Miguel's act throws him out of the world of the living, and into the world of the dead, where he is obliged to reconnect with those same ancestors he's just been so busily descrying in order to find his way back. But when Imelda (Alanna Ubach) puts the restriction that he must give up music in order to receive her blessing, Miguel bolts, looking to find the whereabouts of de la Cruz. Because the rule is only that he needs to be blessed by a relative - there's nothing saying it has to be a relative he was aware of more than three hours ago. So with the help of the obviously shiftless dead conman Héctor (Gael García Bernal), Miguel heads straight into the city of the dead to find his great-great-grandfather before sunrise comes, and he's trapped there forever.

This is all a fun injection of bright fantasy into a holiday tradition that doesn't get much if any cinematic affection in the anglosphere, and much as with the innumerable "behind the scenes of Christmas" movies that have come out over the years, the filmmakers, led by director Lee Unkrich (previously of Toy Story 3) and co-director Adrian Molina, have mostly gone all-in on creating a dazzling, spectacular world that goes all-in on celebrating the iconography of that holiday. What this means, mostly, is that the world of the dead is populated by skeletons decorated with the brightly-colored details of calaveras, and that the setting is a towering spire of pink and blue and green buildings existing in defiance of gravity or spatial logic. It's a gorgeous film, no matter what else we might say about it: while each new Pixar film doesn't represent the visible leap forward in technology that they used to back in the 2000s, it still seems that Coco might be the testing ground for some incredible new method of using particle animation to represent aerial perspective (if nothing else, the amazing sight of a bridge made out of drifting, glowing flower petals is obviously showing off what Pixar's computers can do with particles).

Besides that, this is certainly the best animation of human beings in the studio's history (setting aside The Incredibles, whose humans were so heavily stylised as to not count), particularly Coco herself; while the leathery, wrinkled old woman is by no means a "realistic" looking human, the texture of her skin - the tightness of it as she moves, the gentle elasticity of it - is the closest to genuinely photorealistic flesh Pixar has gotten. And all the way on the opposite side, Miguel is a wonderful achievement of gangly pre-adolescent limbs and squishy facial expressions; there's an offbeat little running joke about how he has a dimple on the left side of his face but not the right that doesn't do very much other than point out the weird things kids find fascinating, but in terms of showing off the impeccably physics of his face all working and tugging in the right ways, it's a small miracle and maybe the coolest character animation grace note I've ever seen in a CGI human being.

There's lots else besides this that makes the film look completely beguiling - the way that Miguel's skin turns into a transparent aura, from the hands up, as sunrise approaching, is particularly lovely - proving after this summer's Cars 3 punted on the issue that Pixar still runs laps around the rest of the industry from a technical standpoint, even their corporate sisters at Walt Disney Animation Studios. And the rest? I dunno. Coco is certainly a fine, pleasant, enjoyable movie, with some cheerfully good comedy, and a lot of very lovely performances: García Bernal turns out to have a facility with voice acting that I wouldn't have guessed, Renée Victor is superb as Coco's authoritarian grandmother, and Edward James Olmos has an excellent tragicomic cameo, gruff and sweet and sad all at once in his barking, raspy way.

It's just... there's not much there. It's a busy film, with lots of plot tangents, visual conceits, bright colors, bubbly songs, and fun jokes, but the business doesn't obscure that Miguel's goals and character arc are as safe and stock-issue as it gets. It's a charming film, not an insightful one. As a piece of visual art, while the colors are gratifying to look at, it's not visually inventive the way that WALL·E was. Hell, it's not even visually inventive the way DreamWorks's The Boss Baby and Captain Underpants were earlier in 2017. It's adorable, lovely, and I cannot imagine that it has anything that will remain particularly memorable a few years down the road.