Despite a healthy diet of Disney films in my youth, I was never a fan of animation. A sober-minded child, I distrusted fantasy and happy endings. Think “Cinderella” or “Sleeping Beauty,” and you will understand what I mean.
Hence my indifference to the advent of Pixar. Sure, I’d watch animated films with my grandkids, but could not imagine choosing to see one on my own.
An even more embarrassing admission: the film’s title signaled (to me) a form of terminal cuteness; no way was I going to see a movie that put me in mind of a miniature poodle.
So what led me to my local megaplex on a dreary post-Thanksgiving afternoon to view such a seemingly unpromising film? It was, I confess, A.O. Scott’s description of “Coco” as “a family-friendly cartoon about death.” That got my attention.
My father had died at the age of forty two—far too young I’d felt at age nine, and even more now at the advanced age of seventy-five. What’s so “family friendly,” I wondered, about death?
Yet….”Coco” captured my heart in a way that I can only describe as magical.
Its theme is remembrance and reverence for the dead, specifically our immediate family members and, more remotely, our ancestors. It also assumes that the barrier between death and life is fluid and permeable. There is a liminal realm in which movement across this boundary is possible. Hence the deceased may revisit us in life, as we may visit them—through the magical process of memory—figured in this film by the rituals and traditions of “Día de Muertos,” the Day of the Dead.
The Day of the Dead, associated with Mexican culture and connected to the Christian calendar of Halloween (October 31), all Saints day (November 1) and All Souls day (November 2), has a long prehistory. It corresponds to the widespread practice—across centuries and continents--of ancestor worship, or (in modern parlance) veneration of the dead. Pre-Christian cultures in Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and Latin America all participated, to some degree, in this set of beliefs and observances.
Honoring the elders in our individual lives and societies may feel like a foreign concept in today’s relentlessly youth-oriented culture, but it was something of a no brainer for our precursors. The deceased, for them, held power in the afterlife—to help or harm us; so it made sense to pay tribute to them through ceremonies of remembrance and offerings of food and gifts.
If this idea seems odd to you, think of our own culture’s obsession with unfriendly spirits—in the form of ghouls and zombies, who are full of malicious intent. What ancient cultures understood intuitively, we represent in sci-fi movies and video-game fantasies.
But here’s what is special about “Coco.”
The dead, in this film, reside in a magical kind of afterlife, where they happily exist as long as someone in the world of the living remembers them: by displaying their photographs on a family altar and visiting their graves on “Día de Muertos,” the Day of the Dead. The film’s portrayal of such an afterlife is entrancing—full of color, light, music, and festivity. The dead, it seems, are having the time of their lives!
The only threat to them—as we learn through the protagonist Miguel, who visits this realm for a limited period of time—is being “forgotten” by the living members of their families—at which point they literally cease to exist.
Miguel, who aspires to be a musician (like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz), is strictly forbidden by his family (mother, grandmother, and presumably also his somnolent great-grandmother Coco) from pursuing his dream, due to his great-great grandmother Imelda’s prohibition against music. Her interdiction derives from the fact that his great-great grandfather abandoned her and their infant daughter Coco to pursue his career ambitions.
Miguel finds himself mysteriously translated into the world of the dead on “Día de Muertos,” where he makes connection with his deceased family members on a quest to find his great-great grandfather, whose “blessing” he seeks not only to confirm his musical ambitions but also to allow him to return to the world of living.
I won’t spoil the movie’s working out of such a “loco” scenario, except to say that its complexly engineered “happy ending” is one that I endorse. I prefer to call attention to the film’s originality in regard to the theme of death and dying in terms of family remembrance.
Post-industrial societies have no place or imagination for the condition of aging, since it cannot be cured We won’t just get better and better; instead we will reach a tipping point, after which we will begin to decline and die. In the amphitheater of death, where we may linger for years, we may appear to be too weak, ill, or mentally compromised to be useful to anyone. Families, overwhelmed by the challenges of their everyday lives, are often unable to offer personal care. Instead, we are shunted off to senior living communities, then assisted living facilities, and finally nursing homes, where too many of us end our lives in states of loneliness and isolation.
“Coco” defies this depressing scenario. The boy Miguel, just beginning his journey in life, is the film’s charming protagonist, but Mama Coco (his great-grandmother) is key to its resolution.
All but mute at the beginning of the film, she revives at its end to recall her long-lost father and the lullaby he composed for her as a child to sing her to sleep. This, of course, turns out to be the theme song of the movie the classic “Recuérdame” or “Remember me.” If this penultimate moment does not bring you to tears, you are far more hard-hearted than I am.
When I came home from viewing this film, I thought about my own deceased family members—not only my grandparents but also my immediate family members (mother, father, and two brothers). I am the only one left, I reflected, to “remember” them.
And I do. They come to me in dreams but also in waking moments—much like the characters in “Coco,” who cross the fiery golden bridge separating life from death once a year to share food, music and celebration with their living descendants.
My family made a terrible mistake in the aftermath of my dad’s death in trying to suppress our grief by not talking about him or what he had meant to us. It was like a collective “forgetting.” In this state, we could not receive him back into our lives to comfort us, nor could his own restless sprit (as I imagine) come to rest.
Psychoanalyst Hans Loewald observed that the process of psychoanalysis, by reviving our memories (of the dead and other frightening thoughts and feelings) helps to turn them from ghosts into ancestors—that is to say, from ghouls or zombies into friendly visitors from the afterlife.
“Coco” speaks to young and old alike in visualizing the border between life and death as a marvel rather than a threat. Our relationships with the important people in our lives do not end with their demise, but are a resource for our personal growth and inspiration.
I wish to dedicate this piece to Lucinda “Pinkie” Hamilton, my best friend from high school, who died on New Year’s Eve 2017 -- whose spirit I will revisit in memory as long as I live.