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:
Though I have to say goodbye
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.