Pixar’s Coco Celebrates Life By Diving into Death

Coco is a lovely, effervescent film about death. It explores themes of familial responsibility, death, and loss, but marries those heavy themes with musical numbers and unforced comedy. The animation is uniformly beautiful and the script is often hilarious. But before we get into the details, I’ll just tell you whether you should see it in the theater:

YES.

This is my favorite Pixar film since WALL-E, and while the story follows a fairly typical plot it’s emotionally rich in a way that recalls last year’s Kubo and the Two Strings more than any other film I can think of. Before I go any further, however, I also want to encourage you to check out Remezcla’s round-up of Latino movie critics, and what they have to say about Coco. I have lots of feelings about it, and I’ll discuss them below, but I can’t speak to the cultural details the way they can.

Coco is preceded by a Frozen short that I found cute and innocuous and a little cheesy and wonderfully Scandinavian. (Don’t worry, parents, no one sings “Let It Go.”) I’ve noticed a few critics online who are annoyed about the length, but it didn’t bother me… but then again I was so irritated by the previews that Olaf’s antics were a relief. I’ve also seen a few people who thought it was too Christmas-y, but characters are clearly celebrating Hanukkah and the Solstice, in addition to the sort of secular gift-giving Christmas that’s dear to Disney’s merchandising heart, so I think everyone’s covered? And then we dive into Coco, which is so lovingly specific it will drive the short out of your brain immediately.

First, a basic, non-spoiler plot synopsis: Miguel is a young boy in Santa Cecilia, Mexico (St. Cecelia being the patron saint of music) and his greatest wish is to become a musician like his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz. Unfortunately, his family has forbidden music because of a long ago tragedy. On Día de Muertos, Miguel accidentally travels to the Land of the Dead, and has to seek a blessing from de la Cruz to get home before sunrise, or stay a skeleton forever. There are lots of missed connections, shenanigans, tear-jerking moments, and musical numbers that are not only actually good, but also necessary to the plot. The film is steeped in Mexican culture, with nods to cinema stars, artists, food, Mayan culture, and, most of all the traditions surround Día de Muertos.

The voice acting is fantastic throughout. Anthony Gonzalez is charming as Miguel: slightly whiny at times, devoted to music, with a believable sense of mischief and adherence to the jumps in logic that a kid’s brain will make when an adult’s would balk. All of the adults shade between being stern and indulgent toward Miguel, and Gael García Bernal is absolutely perfect as Hector, who starts off as a sly trickster figure before becoming Miguel’s guide to the world of the dead—and an increasingly important character.

I’ll confess here that I tend to hate animated musicals. I don’t want to Let it Go, I don’t want to be Part of That World, I don’t want to hear any more whining about a Provincial Life. I don’t need Randy Newman’s opinions on friendship. I just want everyone to talk. But Coco’s music is not only integral to the plot, it’s also effervescent and heartfelt. Silly songs like “Un Poco Loco” balance with traditional heartstring-tuggers like “La Llorona,” but the music’s importance really becomes clear with the repeated uses of “Remember Me” which changes meaning throughout the film, depending on who’s singing it.

The film’s main theme, loving and supporting your family, and remembering those you’ve lost, comes through in every scene. While Miguel sometimes finds his family and their shoemaking business suffocating, he also knows that they love him. His entire sprawling family bustles between their home and their shoe shop, and not only is the family led by Miguel’s Abuelita Elena, the tough matriarch, but the whole family also cares for Miguel’s great-grandmother, Coco. She lives in her home, surrounded not only by her children and their children and their children’s children, but also by the lovingly-cared-for photos of those who came before her. The film shows us this, so rather than hearing people blather about the importance of family and respect for the elderly, we all see it in action. We love Coco almost as much as Miguel does.

If your child has suffered a loss recently, or if they’ve been prodding you about the whole death thing, Pixar has given you a great way to make that conversation easier. Death is quite real. However, the film puts its focus on the idea that you can honor those you’ve lost by remembering them and telling their stories. Just because someone isn’t with you anymore, that doesn’t mean that the love you have for them has disappeared. Best of all it does this strictly within the tradition of Día De Muertos. For families that follow these traditions, the film offers an opportunity to see the holiday dramatized onscreen. For others, this is not only a only a chance to teach kids about another culture, but it’s also a warm, comforting space to talk about your own family’s attitudes toward death. And the film is funny enough, and colorful enough, that it has escape valves built into it to keep smaller children from being frightened.

I’ve seen a lot of comparisons to Ratatouille and Spirited Away, and while those are both apt, I thought it was interesting how much the film mirrors Kubo and the Two Strings. That film was far darker, and had a more epic feel than Coco, but the basic idea of uniting a family beyond death resonates in both stories.

Kubo focused on the Buddhist tradition of the Obon Festival. The film’s director, Travis Knight, has family members who are practicing Buddhists, so he chose to translate a Japanese tradition for American audiences. The cast reflects this, with the main characters being played by an international cast of bankable (white) stars Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, and Matthew McConaughey. Knight chose to fill the bench of his side characters with Japanese and Japanese–American actors. It was an interesting step, to me, since it implied that Knight was striving for a level of cultural authenticity while also hiring enough big names to get greenlit—I can’t imagine that a complicated children’s film about Buddhist death rituals was an easy sell in the U.S., even for the scion of Nike.

Conversely, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride did the singularly weird thing of mashing up repressive Protestant English Victoriana with a riff on Jewish folktale of The Dybbuk and a colorful, Día de Muertos-tinged afterlife. Now I’m all for this type of mashup, but I was frustrated by that film’s lack of internal logic. Why did Victor end up there? Why was the realm of the dead like that? Why was Emily enacting a Jewish folktale after her murder? Was this what Victor expected to happen to him when he died? This seemed to be the only afterlife—Victor’s childhood dog was there, waiting for him, and one of the children of Victor’s town recognized his beloved grandfather when the dead all come back into the land of the living.

Coco, however, makes sense. It shows us an indigenous/Mexican tradition, and everyone in the land of the dead is Mexican, and believed in these traditions in life. Miguel’s best friend in life is a Xoloitzcuintli—a Mexican hairless dog—named Dante. The bridge between life and death is paved with Aztec marigolds—flowers traditionally left on the shrines to the dead. The spirit guides are alebrijes, colorful mystical beasts from 20th century Mexican folklore. The celebrities in the afterlife are Frida Kahlo and El Santo. Ernesto de la Cruz himself is modeled on Pedro Infante, a musician and star during the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, who also had a bit of a playboy persona, and who died tragically young in a plane crash. (Google did a doodle for him for his hundredth birthday.)

When Miguel finds himself stuck in an underground pool (it’s a long story) there’s a carving in the wall that seems to evoke Mayan religious art, in a nod to the way Cenotes were probably used in Mayan religious ritual.

But what’s interesting to me here is that beyond this, there is no larger cosmological structure implied. No deities are invoked, and while there’s a cross on the wall in the family home, and Miguel’s Abeuelita makes the sign of the cross once, there is no other explicit Christianity. Which is obviously a great way to honor the pre-Christian roots of this celebration, while also nodding to the largely Catholic culture of modern-day Mexico. When people are forgotten they disappear from the Land of the Dead, collapsing painfully into a golden glitter that fades away into the air. No one knows what becomes of them—whether there’s some further realm of existence, or if that’s just…it. It’s a dark undercurrent for the film, that drives home both the theme that it’s important to remember those who have died, but also that eventually, someday, all of us will be gone. This touch gives the film a melancholy that adds weight to all the fun of the land of the dead.

If there was anything I didn’t like it was simply that, for the purposes of plot, there had to be class divisions and social strata even after death—despite the fact that in every Día de Muertos tradition I know, there’s an emphasis on the idea of death as the ultimate equalizer. But again, if there wasn’t that element, there would be no conflict, because Miguel would simply walk up to Ernesto de la Cruz five minutes after getting to the Land of the Dead, and the movie would end—and I’m guessing everyone wanted it to be at least a little longer than the Frozen short.

Walking home from the movie theater I crossed the street and had to step over the program from a memorial service. A woman’s photo and name were on the front cover. Someone had dropped it into the gutter, where it was soaking into a puddle. Was this an accident? A really mean posthumous commentary? Whatever it was, it’s the kind of on-the-nose detail that gets red circles and slashthroughs when you turn your story into workshop, but in life, you just have to accept it.

Leah Schnelbach really wanted to pick that memorial program up and put it somewhere nicer…but this is New York, and touching a puddle of New York sludge might hasten her own journey to the Land of the Dead. Come talk to her on Twitter!

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