Welcome back to Faith in Film! This week, we're tackling Pixar's brilliant 2017 animated film Coco. Have you seen it? It's a beautifully-told story about passion, family, and ancestry. Definitely less serious than some of the other films we've tackled throughout this series! As always, consider this your spoiler warning.
Coco is steeped in Mexican culture, especially revolving around Dia de Muertos, the All Souls' Day-adjacent celebration of family members who have passed on. On this holiday, families set up "altars" (called "ofrendas") for ancestors who have passed away. They're decorated with flowers and photos of the deceased, and food is often left at the altar as a gift.
Coco is set on Dia de Muertos. Our protagonist, a young boy named Miguel, dreams of being a musician, especially after becoming convinced that his long lost great-great grandfather is none other than Ernesto de la Cruz, Mexico's greatest musician. Unfortunately for him, his grandmother, the matriarch of the family, has banned all music in the house after her grandfather left to pursue a music career and never returned.
Miguel believes he can convince his family that music is a good thing if he can just get a chance to play in the talent show in the plaza that evening. The problem is, he doesn't have a guitar. He devises a plan to sneak into de la Cruz's tomb, "borrow" his legendary guitar, and play in the talent show.
He sneaks in, grabs the guitar, gives it a strum, and exits the tomb. Except...nobody in the cemetery can see him. He runs through the cemetery, asking for help and even passing through the bodies of those around him. He finally bumps into a tall woman, relieved that she can feel him...until she turns around and is revealed to be a living skeleton.
This is where we, as Catholics, must be mindful of what we are watching. Coco posits that the souls of the dead return to earth from the land of the dead on Dia de Muertos, collecting the food their families leave at the ofrendas for them (but ONLY if their photo is also placed on the ofrenda). This is the very essence of Faith in Film; to be able to watch and enjoy a film like Coco while refuting its incorrect assertions about the nature of life after death.
Miguel slowly comes to realize that he has passed into this state by defying his family's wishes and strumming de la Cruz's magical guitar. He meets up with some of his deceased family members, and they decide to bring him to the land of the dead to sort it all out.
One more thing to be wary of regarding Coco's portrayal of the afterlife: in this film, one's time in the land of dead (the afterlife) is temporary. It only lasts as long as you're remembered on earth. Once the last person to remember you (or stories about you) dies, you endure a "second death," where your body dissolves into dust and you fade away, similar to the Thanos snap from Infinity War.
Miguel learns that he cannot return home unless he receives his family's blessing. The ancestral matriarch of his family is Mama Jimelda...the wife of the musician who left and disappeared. She gives him her blessing, but adds a condition that Miguel must never play music again. Rather than accept her terms, he runs away from his family and decides to try to get a blessing from Ernesto de la Cruz, his great-great grandfather.
Our hero links up with Hector, a bit of a trickster who says he can get Miguel into de la Cruz's big party. They eventually make it, but some things come to light that flip things upside down. This is a big ole spoiler, so one final warning!
It turns out that Hector was once de la Cruz's partner, and he actually wrote all of the legendary musician's most popular songs. When Hector decided to quit music and return home to his family, de la Cruz poisoned him and took credit for all of his work. The final, massive revelation is that Hector, not de la Cruz, is Miguel's great-great grandfather.
After de la Cruz is exposed as a fraud, Hector collapses to the ground and is wracked with tremors. Miguel's great grandmother, Mama Coco (still living), is beginning to forget Hector in her old age. He's on the verge of experiencing the "second death." He and Mama Jimelda hastily give Miguel their blessing to return to the land of the living.
When Miguel returns to the spot where he first strummed de la Cruz's guitar, he immediately races home to Mama Coco to try to help her remember Hector. It's a real tear-jerker of a scene, as he plays de la Cruz's most famous song, "Remember Me" (which Hector originally wrote as a lullaby for Coco) for her, and she slowly brightens up and begins to sing along. Seriously, I challenge you to watch it without crying.
It's all wrapped up in a nice happy ending, as Miguel's family learns to accept his musical leanings. Hector's memory lives on, and they live happily ever after! It's a joyful, celebratory end to a movie that joyfully celebrates Mexican culture and music.
The central themes of this film are family and the importance of keeping the memory of one's loved ones alive. While it won't stop them from experiencing a "second death" (this is a complete fabrication, as we are promised eternal life after death, not "a slightly longer but still finite" life), it's important!
Our families and their stories shape us into who we are, guide our worldview, and influence our morals and values. The Church has rightly placed significant emphasis on the family throughout the centuries, with Pope Benedict XVI going so far as to call the family "the domestic Church."
How can you make your family a domestic Church? How can you keep the memory of your friends and loved ones who have passed away alive? What stories can you tell? These are the questions that Coco begs of us. While its depiction of the afterlife is flawed, its themes of family and ancestry are rock solid. Never forget those who came before you!