Why Coco is Both Personally and Culturally Significant
By Andy Weir
Death and legacy are not generally the first themes that come to mind when thinking about children’s movies, but in Pixar’s latest masterpiece Coco, these themes take center stage on a journey that becomes as meaningful as it is whimsical.
In Coco, 12-year-old Miguel Rivera dreams of being a musician, despite his family’s strict ban on any music. The ban dates back to the abandonment of his great-great-grandmother by her husband, an aspiring musician. Heartbroken, she removes any references to him whatsoever and forbids her family from even going near any music or instrument. Generations later, Miguel, insistent on emulating his idol, guitarist and singer Ernesto de la Cruz, begins to harbor hostility towards his family for its outright rejection of his passion. From there on out, the film utilizes plot devices not-so-atypical of a children’s film (running away, an archetypal journey, and of course, a Frozen-like plot twist).
Being a Pixar film, the animation is truly stunning, as one would expect. Not only are the colors and landscape so vibrant and vivid but scenes transition between one another so seamlessly that it makes the film seem even more whimsical.
Furthering that whimsy is the distinct, authentic music that almost becomes a character unto itself. Songs like “Remember Me” and “El Latido de mi Corazón” blend English and Spanish together in a way that lends itself to an enhanced sense of authenticity. Whether it be the music, customs, or even the personalities of the characters, these nuances give the film a real sense of authenticity in its goal to represent an important element of Mexican culture.
But what makes Coco truly stand out most from other children’s movies is its approach to death. While other films use death as a plot device or fear tactic, in Coco, death is presented as natural. It is not meant to scare the audience but rather engage it in a more probing question about legacy and family. In Coco, fear focuses not around death but rather being forgotten.
Hector, Miguel’s older companion for much of his journey through the Land of the Dead, helps Miguel in exchange for posting a photo of him on Earth, allowing Hector to visit his living family on Día de los Muertos. Hector, seemingly forgotten by his ancestors, fears that the last living memories of him will soon fade away. Oddly enough, Hector is not consumed by his own death but rather his own legacy.
His character grapples with questions that resemble questions that nearly every human has pondered in some way or another at a point in his or her life. What will happen when I die? How will I be remembered? Have I made more mistakes than done good deeds? Have I made my family proud? These are questions Coco explores in a playful yet personal and serious way, a way that is not common for most children’s films today.
It is also important to remember the cultural context of Coco. This film centers around a Mexican protagonist engaging with Mexican customs, which the filmmakers want to depict authentically and accurately. At the same time, Coco aims to appeal to an American audience, a paradigm that some have argued is impossible. For example, the film’s announcement was expectedly met with skepticism from prominent Mexican-American groups, questioning if Disney could do justice to such an important and complicated Mexican tradition in a 90-minute animated film. This concern came at the same time that a prominent presidential candidate was using rhetoric described by some as deliberately “anti-Mexican” in the United States.
At the film’s North American premiere in November, Gael Garcia Bernal, who voices Hector, explicitly dedicated the film to all children with ancestors in Mexico and Latin America. In a not-so-veiled jab at the current presidential administration, Bernal said, “In this moment, these kids are growing up with a lot of fear because the established narrative says that they come from families that come from rapists, murderers, and drug traffickers.”
In Coco, it is no coincidence that the path to and from the Land of the Dead involves a customs-like border checkpoint, one that Hector actually attempts to cross illegally. It is no coincidence that English and Spanish are woven together in a beautiful harmonious tapestry. While the film is not inherently political, its storytelling and cultural authenticity does implicitly convey the message that all peoples are more alike than they are different. All peoples have families. All peoples grapple with questions of legacy. Death sees no boundaries. Oddly enough, as sad a reality as it might be, that simple theme serves as a stark rebuke to some of the emerging anti-Mexican and xenophobic sentiments in the United States today.
Though most of this personal and cultural meaning will probably pass over the minds of the young ones watching, Coco proves that a children’s animated film can be both compelling and culturally significant, while still entertaining all audiences watching.