The Rover reviews a timely Disney Pixar movie
Four years ago, Disney Pixar released Coco, a hit film based on the holiday of Dia de los Muertos. As the holiday rolls around this year, we have an opportunity to see how the film integrates the Catholic tradition upon which Dia de los Muertos is partially based, sometimes departing from the religious aspects of the holiday but in other cases overlapping with the faith in a way that offers important moral lessons about life and the value of the holiday itself.
A charming film brimming with vibrant colors and beautiful music, Coco tells the story of a young boy named Miguel, a music-lover in a family that forbids all music because Miguel’s great-grandfather abandoned the family to pursue his musical career. On Dia de los Muertos, Miguel runs away from home and accidentally enters the land of the dead. He discovers that he needs a relative’s blessing to return, and must also return home before the sun rises, or else be trapped forever among the dead. When his great-grandmother only offers her blessing on the condition that Miguel stop playing music, he flees from his deceased relatives and sets out with the vagabond Hector, who claims he can help guide him to the man Miguel believes to be his great-grandfather, the famous musician Ernesto de la Cruz.
The film is based on the Latin-American holiday Dia de los Muertos, which is a product of Aztec, Spanish, and Catholic practices surrounding remembrance for the dead. Over the years, the holiday has grown more popular in the United States, leading to large festivals in cities such as Los Angeles, San Antonio, and San Francisco, as well as local celebrations among Latino communities, including here at Notre Dame.
Coco received mixed, but largely positive, reviews for the way it depicted the cultural elements of Dia de los Muertos, especially for its accurate depiction of decorated cemeteries and memorial altars—called ofrendas—which families set up in their homes to honor deceased loved ones, as well as the use of marigold flowers, whose bright gold color and strong fragrance are believed to help guide the dead to their altars. There are also specifically Catholic traditions which influence both the holiday and Coco.
First, it should be noted that Coco does not try to be an overtly Catholic film. It ignores the role that God, prayer, and the saints play in the tradition of the holiday, and presents the dead as simply living in a separate, very earth-like world, rather than anything like the Christian afterlife. This does not necessarily deserve criticism, but it should be noted in order that one does not reduce the holiday to its portrayal in the film. Doing so misses the cultural roots of Dia de los Muertos and some of the most important lessons it has to offer.
Fortunately, even though it does not completely capture the Catholic elements of Dia de los Muertos, Coco still offers a few very important lessons which overlap with the Catholic tradition in interesting ways. It subtly presents the Catholic tradition of memento mori—“remember your death”—with the near-ubiquitous imagery of skulls, skeletons, and tombstones. Even in Miguel’s day-to-day life, the reality of death looms in the background.
Furthermore, Coco elevates the value of love over the value of worldly honor by cleverly playing with the meaning of the hit song Remember Me. Initially sung in a bold, powerful tone in front of an enormous audience, the song is later sung as a tender, loving gift from a father to his baby daughter.
As he journeys through the land of the dead, drawn by Ernesto’s distant magnificent mansion and the future of a famous musician which it promises, Miguel’s flesh begins to turn transparent. His true human nature is corrupted and he becomes more like the skeletal dead around him. (One can’t help but think of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, wherein souls trying to enter Heaven are less substantial and less fully themselves than the saints because they are corrupted and controlled by their sins.) When he finally reaches Ernesto, Miguel is initially happy, but he is conflicted about the morality of Ernesto’s decision to sacrifice his family for his fame. Although he begrudgingly comes to accept that “true artists” are too valuable to be tied down by a family—a prideful statement if there ever was one—he soon realizes that the man he thought was his great-grandfather is actually a fraud, who murdered his partner and stole his music.
After he sees the true evil of the idol he had been pursuing, Miguel is thrown into a well — an image reminiscent of baptism. It is only after he emerges from the water that he comes to recognize his real great-grandfather, Hector, who has been with Miguel all along but remained unrecognized because of Miguel’s fixation on the apparent good offered by the life of fame and honor.
Intentionally or not—it may well be that a story about a holiday centered around familial love naturally hints at the divine-human relationship of which familial love is a pale shadow—Coco mirrors the story of the basic Christian struggle: choosing to follow the Father of Lies, who looks attractive from a distance and offers us all the prestige and worldly pleasure we could want, or recognizing our real Father, who offers us simply the chance to realize our full nature and to give and experience love, which is our true and only source of real happiness.
While it misses some aspects of the Catholic influence on Dia de los Muertos, Coco still overlaps with the Catholic tradition in a variety of ways. Most importantly, it reminds us to love each other and to love God, which Dia de los Muertos provides us a beautiful opportunity to do by praying in a special way for our deceased loved ones, that they may be brought into the heavenly family of the children of God.
Jack McEnery is a sophomore PLS major living in Alumni Hall. He can usually be found reading in the PLS lounge while consuming copious quantities of caffeine, and is quite comfortable collecting questions, concerns, or chocolate chip cookies from anyone. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org (especially if you have chocolate chip cookies).