Say that I’m crazy or call me a fool
But last night it seemed that I dreamed about you
When I opened my mouth what came out was a song
And you knew every word and we all sang along.
Coco is perhaps the most culturally focused and specific Pixar film to date. It is set not in Anytown, USA, or a prehistoric wilderness, or a fairytale kingdom. It is within one village, Santa Cecilia, and follows one boy as he learns about his family. If Inside Out is powerful for its universality, Coco is a marvel for its effective specificity about one family, their music, and their legacy.
Our young hero, Miguel Rivera (performed exceptionally by Anthony Gonzalez), is not out to save the world – he’s pursuing his destiny, diving into his family history to understand his past. He’s an aspiring musician from a family that forbids music; his great-great grandfather abandoned his wife and child to pursue music, triggering an instant and long-running resentment by the family towards the art form. In order for Miguel to see his dream through, he must first win over his family in the present, by unlocking his family’s past.
On the eve of Dia de los Muertos, he finds himself accidentally transported to the Land of the Dead, bringing him face-to-face with his ancestors, including his Mama Imelda, the great-great grandmother whose heart was broken by her musician husband. With the help of Hector, a ragged companion Miguel finds along the way, he dives deeper into his family history and learns the truth of what happened so long ago.
Dia de los Muertos is a holiday celebrating the life of those no longer with us, when the living play host to our dearly departed. Favorite foods, family photos, even shots of tequila are displayed on ofrendas (altars) to welcome our loved ones back into our lives. The Rivera ofrenda, like any, is tailored for the ancestors left behind, to connect them to the present and to remind those living today of the family’s past.
The theme of memory courses throughout the film as the underlying tragedy, and promise, of Dia de los Muertos. A person’s “second life” in the Land of the Dead goes on only as long as they still have a living descendant who remembers them. This is all the more poignant as Miguel’s great-grandmother and oldest living relative Mama Coco ages and experiences memory loss, putting the memory of her ancestors at risk. But Miguel learns, through a complex yet poetic narrative, that memories of the past can bring a family closer together in the present.
It’s hard to talk about this movie without tiptoeing into spoiler territory, but I can promise that the ending, tying together the concepts of death, memory, and family is a spectacularly moving musical finale. The sorrow and joy of a family’s love is brought together through song for an emotional yet uplifting climax – at first surprising for a film with so much death, but ultimately does embody the warm spirit of Dia de los Muertos.
Not everyone is of Mexican descent, and much of the world has never celebrated Dia de los Muertos (including myself), but the tale woven from a specific cultural holiday, about one unique family, is a universal and unforgettably moving film.