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The “Skeleton Movie”

Coco is the first Pixar film to take on matters of the afterlife—including death, Heaven, quasi-purgatory, and the communion of saints—and it is entertaining and heartwarming if not timeless.

MPAA Rating: PG
USCCB Rating: A-II
Reel Rating: 3.5 (out of 5)

Pixar has been in a lull after two disappointing sequels (Finding Dory, Cars 3), and while Coco doesn’t bring the studio back to its glory days, when every film was a masterpiece, it is at least entertaining and heartwarming if not timeless. It’s the first Pixar film to take on matters of the afterlife, including death, Heaven, quasi-purgatory, and the communion of saints. While based on both Christian and pagan concepts, there is nothing in its mythology that strays too far away from natural law, with a few aberrations necessary for the story. While Coco is, overall, pretty good, the conversations it might inspire amongst youngsters and their parents will be even better.

Young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is the energetic child from a family of lower-middle class shoemakers living in the outskirts of Mexico City. He rejects his family’s multi-generation profession in favor of a secret desire to play the guitar like his idol, the famed musician and actor Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). This is blasphemy to his grandma whose own grandfather abandoned his family to pursue a music career. Through chance, Miguel discovers that de la Cruz may have been his great-great-grandfather. When he steals de la Cruz’s guitar for a music competition on Día de los Muertos, Miguel is accidentally sent to the spirit world. Aided by Hector (Gael García Bernal), another dead musician, he must find de la Cruz and receive his blessing by sunrise or never return to the land of the living.

Like the 1998 movie What Dreams May Come or the current NBC series The Good Place, a narrative like this rises and falls on the mythology it creates for its vision of the afterlife. Because “no eye has seen, nor ear has heard” what that world is really like, any literary interpretation will fall short. But used correctly, it can be a compelling method for illustrating both the reality and importance of Heaven and Hell. Based on the Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), which has both pagan and Catholic roots, Coco’s afterlife is a place where the souls of the departed live pretty much the same as they did on Earth. If they are “remembered” by their family, then they can live in peace and happiness, but once they are “forgotten,” they disappear. “We call it the Final Death,” Hector explains to Miguel. “It happens to everyone. No one knows where you go.”

This mythology is much closer to an “abode of the dead” such as Hades or Xibalba than the Christian understanding of the afterlife. There is no reference to morality in this world; indeed, one villainous character lives quite well. What matters is that one is remembered and cherished by one’s descendants. This can be problematic because it is confusing how good and bad affect one’s eternal state. At the same time, evil deeds clearly have consequences across generations. The selfish decision of Miguel’s ancestor affected the course of his entire family and the wounds hurt nearly a century later.

Coco’s best attribute is the way it highlights the importance of the family, not just in this life but the next. Miguel begins the film with a shocking insult to his grandmother and the Hispanic tradition of creating a shrine to one’s ancestors. “I don’t want to be on your ofrenda!” he screams. Yet, by the end, he not only wants to be part of the family, but helps reconcile members to make the ofrenda grow. While the dignity of the dead does not depend on remembrance, we can help those in Purgatory with our prayers, and those in Heaven can help us with theirs. The gates of Heaven are “pearls” (Rev 21:21), not iron, and the communion of saints—like the world’s biggest ofrenda—are always immediately accessible.

Another way Coco underlines this important theme is its incredible use of music. The title song “Remember Me” is first heard in a great orchestral arrangement by de la Cruz on television with dozens of backgrounds singers and elaborate set pieces:

Remember me
Though I have to say goodbye
Remember me
Don’t let it make you cry
For even if I’m far away I hold you in my heart
I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart

This show of glory inspires Miguel to excellence, but it lacks an emotional core. It is sung twice more, first by Hector as a sad lullaby to someone he left behind. Despite his lack of pizazz, Hector’s version sounds more honest and intimate—as if he somehow understands its true meaning. The last time it is sung by Miguel in an act of desperation, seeking redemption for both his sins and those of his ancestors. The changing nature of the song mirrors Miguel’s developing conscience regarding his role in this family.

The title of the film is not The Music of de la Cruz or even Miguel’s Memorable Journey but Coco. Who is Coco? It is the nickname for Miguel’s great-grandmother and the last person alive who remembers the musician who ran away and started this mess. Yet Coco harbors no ill will, and in her ninety-year old state of dementia still calls out for her “Papa.” She is the ultimate link between memories and the ancestors and the hidden heart of the story. The ones who came before us still exist, and it is important not just to remember them but develop an active relationship. Even if there are plenty of theological inaccuracies in Coco, that still a message the larger culture—so often stripped of any sense of an actual afterlife—needs desperately, and it’s wonderful to see that the talent at Pixar is there to help.

Post-Script: I took my whole family to see this film on Black Friday. Afterwards, I asked my four-year old son what he thought. He said he “really liked the skeleton movie.” Most of the film’s appeal to children is that the residents of the spirit world are skeletons and suffer “Olaf Syndrome,” meaning they are constantly losing or re-arranging their limbs in humorous ways. This is a device designed to entertain so the message can be fully absorbed into the story. Pixar is especially good at this, unlike many animation companies that use humor simply fas a temporary distraction.

About Nick Olszyk 109 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.

7 Comments

  1. I am dying to see this one.

    Although Disney has taken on death in unsettling ways before, in both Mulan and Hercules.

    A Japanese – Christian friend found the former’s depiction of ancestor worship very unsettling. We are not Confucians, Mormons, or superstitious Mexican Catholics, hopefully. Veneration of saints is not communion with the dead… or so I thought. Caution is needed here.

    The afterlife is not a neutral subject, and Disney is not a neutral guide.

  2. “The ones who came before us still exist, and it is important not just to remember them but develop an active relationship. ”

    Quite a zinger there. I’d appreciate more nuanced substantiation.

    • The entire section on the communion of saints in the CCC (par 946ff) is worth reading, but here’s a good section in light of Nick’s remark:

      958 Communion with the dead. “In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead; and ‘because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins’ she offers her suffrages for them.” Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.

      959 In the one family of God. “For if we continue to love one another and to join in praising the Most Holy Trinity – all of us who are sons of God and form one family in Christ – we will be faithful to the deepest vocation of the Church.”

    • Not really a surprising declaration at all.

      The Catholic Church has a very rich and Scriptual understanding of the very “alive” souls gone before us. The Catechism as noted by Mr. Olson is an excellent source to begin a fascinating journey through both Scripture and Tradition.

  3. EWTN had this exchange:

    Ancestor worship?
    Question from A M :
    I just had a coversation with a professor who is also Catholic, but not that conservative or orthodox. In class today we talked about differing styles of worship. After class she talked to me about Halloween (today) and how “interesting” it is that this holiday “plays with the dark side,” with “spirits” and such. She pointed out how many Catholics see it as purely secular and don’t have a problem with it, while others see it as dangerous and corrupting. I and my family have always belonged to the former camp. I don’t think that wearing an orange and black witch hat for fun on Halloween is an occult practice! I’ve always been told that the usual Halloween practice (trick-or-treating and candy) doesn’t conflict doesn’t conflict with Church teaching. I guess that’s my first question.

    She seemed determined to prove that some aspects of Catholic worship “play with the dark side.” She pointed out speaking in tongues and honoring the dead, such as setting a place for them at the dinner table on holidays. I know that not all Catholics do these things (I don’t), but she seemed to think that if some Catholics practice something, then it is a Catholic practice. I tried to argue otherwise, stressing the actual teachings of the Church, unsuccessfully.

    She then went on to say that when she lived in Taiwan, priests there condoned “ancestor worship” and said that they had the Church’s approval. I said there was no way this could be possible because Catholics can only worship God; that maybe some Catholics there practiced it but it couldn’t be condoned by the Church. Upon further questioning I found out that this “ancestor worship” consisted of leaving food offerings for the dead. I said that maybe that was allowed as a custom…but what is the real situation here? Could this be allowed in Catholic liturgy?

    She also said that the Catholic Church allowed the burning of Buddhist idols. I pointed out that burning them was getting rid of them, but she said that getting rid of them was a recognition that those other gods exist and therefore need to be eliminated. “Why would they need to burn them if they didn’t exist?” she said. I said that maybe it was because they had a powerful effect on the people, if Buddhism was the dominant religion, but that wasn’t necessarily acknowledging that there are other gods. I pointed out how the Israelites were supposed to believe in only one God, but they kept falling into paganism because everyone around them was pagan, so there would have been a need for them to get rid of idols. I also cited the definition of God, “The Supreme Being Who made all things,” and said you can’t be Supreme and more than one at the same time. Those were the absolute best defenses I could come up with, but she still wasn’t convinced. She wouldn’t back down about the idol burning: “Yes, but it’s still a recognition!”

    What DOES the Church actually allow in all these practices, and what can I say to this professor? I am very frustrated because we had just talked about religious tolerance in class, and then she completely challenged my faith afterwards and wouldn’t back down!

    Answer by CD:
    You pretty much answered all your own questions, and quite well.

    The Church would not indeed condone “ancestor worship,” per se, as Americans usually understand “worship” (adoration, marks of absolute dependance etc.). However, “worship” has a broader meaning historically, especially where the British have had influence, that includes the veneration of people in authority, of holy people (the saints and angels), and in some cultures, ancestors, all of whom we have been or are dependant upon in some secondary and finite way. In other words, since God has set them to be over us, in either natural hierarchy (parents, older relatives, civil authorities etc.) or supernatural hierarchy (priests, bishops, the pope, the saints, angels), we recognize God’s government in recognizing them. The Church would allow marks of relative “worship” or veneration, where the particular customs do not violate Catholic teaching. Unfortunately, many in the West have such an individualistic view of religion (and civil life, too), that its “God and me”, and practically no one else is deserving of any special marks of respect. Certainly, the Catholic position does not preclude errors by individual Catholics (including clergy) that instead tend toward superstition, rather than a well-ordered recognition of God’s authority in creatures.

    As for idols, you are quite right, the Church smashes them so they can no longer facilitate pagan worship. But, the Church also recognizes that while the pagan gods do not exist the fallen angels do, and they can use such idols to encourage their own worship, in the strict sense of the word, by doing “tricks” through them to appear to be real. Missionaries know these phenomenon quite well, so they smash such idols when they encounter them. Like St. Boniface chopping down the sacred tree of the Germans, it shows the people that Christ is victorious over the devil and his “gods”.

  4. Your comment in the cd is wrong- the pagan gods are the fallen angels. They were very real and they were sent by God to govern man in the antediluvian world. Their illegitimate children, the nephilim are what this story is about- the wandering spirits of the dead.

    As a father of a 4.5 year old I would never let my son view this movie. Not because I can’t explain it but because I think it causes confusion- which is precisely what it’s meant to do. Disney targets children for a reason. The same way Maui claims to have created the world in his catchy song from Muana, this movie is meant to deceive.

    Mixing Catholic dogma with pagan belief is still spiritual poison. Christ is the way, the TRUTH and the life. Not the partial truth or the watered down truth.

    This movie teaches the association with familiar spirits, portals to other worlds, memories having more power than natural death, magick, spirit guides and on and on. There is nothing Catholic about it.

    The best lies contain an element of truth.

    Do not be deceived by this movie or any other movie (Disney or otherwise) that casts doubt into the true God YHWH or His commands that grant eternal salvation. Children are easily deceived- don’t aid in their confusion.

  5. The following is my testimony of an experience my family lived many years ago:
    when I was 4 yrs old, my father used to get nightly visits from a dense shadow. He felt he couldn’t move as if someone was sitting on him. We were very poor and the whole family of 5 slept in one bedroom. My teen brothers at the time used to see this shadow moving towards my father and sitting by his side while staring at him. One day my father got tired of this and asked him using vulgar language “what do u want?” The shadow told him that he was my grandfather and was in purgatory and needed 5 masses to get out. My family wasn’t religious at all. in fact there was a lot of daily turmoil. We didn’t attend mass, didn’t know how to pray or even had a bible at home. I’m not even sure if my dad ordered the masses right away. We were catholic but just by name. We were in complete ignorance/darkness during that time.

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