Young Miguel wants to be a musician more than anything, like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz. Unfortunately, that’s the one thing his family will not allow. Many years ago, his great-great- grandfather left his wife and little daughter Coco behind to pursue fame as a singer, and the Rivera family will never forget.
While Miguel rebels against his family’s restrictions, he still loves and respects them. And therein lies his dilemma. How can he explore his love for music if the people who matter most to him won’t hear of it?
His small Mexican village is having a talent show in the plaza as a part of their Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, and Miguel wants to compete. In his attempt to do that, he ends up crossing to the Land of the Dead, where those who have died live on as long as their families remember them.
Miguel comes to the point where he will have to decide if he is willing to forget his family and follow his dreams. Indeed, his hero de la Cruz famously encouraged people to “seize the moment.” But Miguel finds that his family might just be more important than his aspirations. That is not a common “moral of the story” for much of what our popular culture offers children; they hear the message “follow your dreams” or “follow your passion” much more than they hear the value of respecting and honoring family. In the end, Miguel’s journey opens his eyes to more of his family’s history, which helps him understand them better.
Integral to the plot is Miguel’s beloved great-grandmother Coco, who is losing her memory. While she can no longer participate in conversation, she is precious to everyone in the family. This film doesn’t make light of her memory loss—but having dementia does not make her any less important or beloved in her family; her memories are very important to them all. It’s refreshing to see an elderly character with a disability treated with dignity and respect.
Coco is a beautiful piece of animation, teeming with color, cultural expression, and creative storytelling, particularly a portion of the story told in the beginning through paper cuts. While the plot gets a little convoluted, and while I think that an earlier movie called The Book of Life is more satisfying from an artistic perspective, the Land of the Dead is brought to life with imagination and humor in Coco. Scenes that show the dead moving among the living on the Day of the Dead bring home how intertwined we are with our family histories. Those we love have a continuing “presence” in our lives even after they are gone.
As I watched onscreen the dead and the living pass each other in the cemetery, it reminded me of the biblical vision of the “cloud of witnesses.” In a Reformed Worship article on All Saints’ Day, CRC pastor Leonard Vander Zee wrote, “We stand on the shoulders of men and women—distinguished and ordinary, recently deceased and long dead—who fought the battle and kept the faith. God used their life and faith to give birth to ours.”
That idea, standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before, is at the heart of Coco. Although the movie’s storyline has nothing to do with generational faith, it definitely addresses generational influence, whether flawed or faithful. While the message of the film sometimes seems to be that nothing is more important than family, it also shows that our families are full of fallible people who do the wrong thing even when they think they are making the best choice.
As Christians, our ancestors in the faith live on in our memories, and their testimony to God’s faithfulness is a gift from God to be passed down through generations. In the words of Psalm 105:8: “He remembers his covenant forever, the promise he made, for a thousand generations.” Thankfully we don’t need to rely on our descendants to remember us; God never forgets. (Disney/Pixar)