Dia de los Muertos is a hard sell in America.
In general, all movies about other cultures and countries are. We’ve westernized the world through Hollywood, and we don’t really care for anyone else’s films.
On a deeper level, though, Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday about death that coincides with our date for Halloween. It’s about celebrating and remembering those who have died. And here in America we prefer not to think or talk about death, thank you very much. We don’t die, we “pass on,” and to where? Who knows! But please don’t speak about it too loudly, lest the Grim Reaper come for me before my preferred time.
But, if there is any movie studio able to tackle this holiday and present it to an American audience, it is Pixar. There is nothing the studio behind Finding Nemo, Inside Out, Toy Story, and Up can’t do. Add a big-eyed boy with a guitar and some musical numbers, and maybe Coco will manage to sneak into your heart, and family viewing rotation, after all.
Coco tells the story of Miguel, the youngest of the Rivera family, who wants to be a musician. He wants to be like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz. The only problem? The Rivera family does not do music. A guitar cannot even be in their line of sight. So on the Day of the Dead, Miguel skips his family’s celebration to compete in a talent competition to show off his skills, and through a series of mishaps, finds himself in the Land of the Dead.
The first act, and probably the weakest part, of Coco is the only area that isn’t highly original. The son-who-wants-to-be-a-musician-but-his-family-doesn’t-want-him-to is not only a trope, but was the plot of 2014’s The Book of Life, an animated movie also about the Day of the Dead.
On a side note, the 2014 animated film The Book of Life is an enjoyable film for kids, but if you have to choose between it and Coco, Coco is the Target brand, Book of Life is the Walmart brand (and Book of Life also includes a mariachi version of Mumford and Sons “I Will Wait,” so decipher from that what you will).
Once the “nobody understands my sensitive musician soul” storyline is established, everything else in Coco shines. It builds up to a well-earned, intense, emotional conclusion that I didn’t see coming. And while there are a few tear-jerker moments, the film doesn’t pry open your tear ducts in the way Pixar usually does. They’ve been accused of being emotionally manipulative, which I think is true in some cases, but here, it doesn’t feel pushed.
I don’t want to say much more about the story or characters, because I think the less you know the better for this film. But, I will say that the voice acting is top-notch, and the adventure the characters go on is full of twists and turns. There are some serious moments, but nothing truly scary, so consider looking at a content review of the film before taking a young child to see it. The toddler I took to see the film was fully engaged the whole time.
What struck me while watching the film is that Coco, even though it starts on October 31st and the skull motif fits for Halloween, is actually the perfect Thanksgiving movie, a genre that is severely lacking. Thanksgiving as a holiday is about family, being thankful, remembering your past, and appreciating your life and culture. Coco does all of that.
In America, we take two distinct views on death. Either we ignore it and don’t talk about it, or we say it’s natural and a part of life. As a Christian, I don’t think either of these are healthy. Ignoring death, not talking to children about it, and refusing to acknowledge or prepare for it is not only an act of fear, but simply unreasonable. We can’t protect anyone from death. Christianity is all about death- the death of Jesus, the death of our sins on a cross, death of our former selves when we come to Christ, and our eventual death so we can go to a new heavens and new earth.
As for saying it’s a natural part of life, ala the Lion King, that also doesn’t seem right either, because we weren’t made to die. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were made to be eternal with God forever. Sin is the unnatural thing brought to mankind. For those who are not Christians, death is something to be afraid of, and as Christians, we should mourn for them.
So Dia de los Muertos- a holiday that acknowledges death, believes that there is an afterlife, teaches children that death isn’t something to be afraid of, and celebrates family- is a great thing. It’s a very Christian thing, I believe.
The only thing that makes this particular Presbyterian pause is that Coco sometimes leans a little too close to ancestral worship. Also, the afterlife presented here isn’t really a heaven. In the film, it explains that if you aren’t remembered by people on earth, then you have a “final death,” where you are gone forever, which isn’t what Heaven is.
I think these issues can be talked through with children if you go as a family to see Coco, which I highly recommend you do. It is not only a lovely film that shows off Pixar’s storytelling and artistry, but it also has another message that is ripe for discussion. Coco explains how we are responsible for each other. Miguel is responsible for his family members being remembered, and his family members are responsible for him and helping his future, and they all create a tight net that will never let the others fall. We are responsible for each other, whether in death or life, and through those loving bonds, nothing can really separate us, because one day, I hope, we will all be united together again.