Though I did not see Coco (2017) in theaters, part of my usual policy of avoiding animated films, the way people talked about it left one with the impression that it is the greatest film since, I do not know, Casablanca (1942)? People laughed, cried, and everything else in between. Normally, any movie that can accomplish such a visceral reaction from an audience is going to have merit. This is true unless, of course, a filmmaker opts for the crude or grotesque solely to titillate. There are some who react well to such material. I am not one of them. Luckily, Coco does not stoop to such methods. That is not Disney’s style, anyway. Instead, it beautifully covers a sensitive subject that, while I do not regret my decision to skip it in the cinema, at least left me glad to have finally watched it. I also viewed it, as is my modus operandi, with my Catholic eyes. I am here to tell you that there is a bit more going on with this film that one might imagine, though I doubt Disney would think of it the same way.
In Coco, Miguel’s (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) family makes shoes. That is not the whole story of their family, however. His great-great grandfather was a musician. But when he left, leaving his young daughter, Mamá Coco (voiced by Ana Ofelia Murguía), alone, his wife, Mamá Imelda (voiced by Alanna Ubach), swore off music completely. This tradition was passed down to Miguel’s generation, particularly enforced by his Abuelita (voiced by Renee Victor). Still, Miguel dreams of playing the guitar, fueled by his Mexican town’s one claim to fame: being the birthplace of Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), famous singer, guitarist, and actor. In secret, Miguel hides a handmade instrument and watches old film reels of de la Cruz, learning to play the guitar by sight. As it is getting close to the all important El Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), there is a festival in town featuring a talent show. Miguel’s family is already wary of him hanging out with musicians in the town square, and Abuelita smashes his makeshift guitar when it is inadvertently revealed. In the talent show, though, Miguel sees his chance to finally perform as he always wanted, emulating his idol de la Cruz. This is given a boost when a picture of Mamá Imelda his family keeps on their ofrenda (a homemade altar used to honor ancestors) breaks, revealing a torn picture with a missing face. The rest of the body looks suspiciously like de la Cruz, guitar and all, and Miguel assumes the renowned musician is his long lost great-great grandfather. Yet, without an instrument, and finding no one from which to borrow one, his chances of fulfilling his goal seem shattered. That is until he remembers that inside de la Cruz’s tomb is the deceased guitar. Thus, with many others in the cemetery on El Día de los Muertos, he sneaks in and attempts to “borrow” the bone white implement. Doing so, however, transports Miguel, a living person, to the land of the dead. This is made possible because the occasion is the one day of the year when the spirits of the passed are allowed to visit the land of the living, taking advantage of the things that are offered them and seeing loved ones still alive. Once among the spirits, Miguel’s ancestors immediately recognize him, particularly Mamá Imelda, who wants to send him back immediately to be with his above ground family. He must do so before sunrise or he will be a skeleton like the rest, but to make this happen one of his family members must give him a blessing. When Miguel explains how it all happened to Mamá Imelda, her distaste for music immediately resurfaces and her blessing contains a condition that he must swear off music. Miguel has no intention of honoring it, and returns to the spirit world right away. His grand idea now is to track down de la Cruz, who Miguel believes will give him the proper musical blessing. Along the way, Miguel meets Héctor (voiced by Gael García Bernal), a spirit whose picture is on nobody’s ofrenda and is in turn prevented from crossing over on El Día de los Muertos. In exchange for Héctor’s help, who claims to know de la Cruz, Miguel agrees to put Héctor’s picture up on his ofrenda so that he is remembered. Through a series of misadventures, Miguel finally makes it to de la Cruz, whose notoriety extends into the afterlife. It also turns out that the relationship between Héctor and de la Cruz is fraught with peril. In life, they were good friends, though it was Héctor with the real talent. When one day he desires to return home, to his wife Imelda and daughter Coco, de la Cruz murders him and steals his music. With morning about to break, Mamá Imelda’s spirit animal breaks loose Héctor and Miguel, who de la Cruz imprisoned in a cenote (basically a sinkhole) after the truth is revealed, and reunited, they expose de la Cruz in a thrilling sequence. In the process, Mamá Imelda rediscovers her love of music and her and Héctor give their full, unconditional blessing to Miguel in time. Hence, when the next El Día de los Muertos comes, everyone (living and alive) is able to commune, with Miguel serenading them all.
Coco is a cute story, but I would be remiss as a Catholic film reviewer if I did not explain a few things that the makers left out. For starters, the holiday where all this takes place is actually a Catholic one. Granted, it does not look Catholic, and the movie focuses exclusively on its Aztec roots. You see, when the Spanish came to the New World, they brought with them Catholicism. Much has been written about this subject, bad and good. Some see it simply as an arm of conquest, quoting papal bulls of the sixteenth century as all but giving permission to Europeans to kill native peoples. I see this as an imprecise interpretation of the spirit of the document, and a gross exaggeration. On the other, there were some incredible things that went on in the conversion of native peoples to the Church. The key event, and an image that is miraculous and misused, is the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In 1531, not too long after the Aztec conquest, the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Juan Diego, a native, and emblazoned Her image on his cloak. This triggered a mass conversion of native peoples to Catholicism. For the Aztecs, as was so often the case for missionaries throughout North and South America, it was not a simple case of you must do everything we say or die, no matter what popular myth will tell you. Native American cultures were interpreted through the lens of Faith, a process that has happened before with Church traditions. After all, God is over everything or He is not God. Missionaries looked upon native peoples as simply not having had the opportunity to have the Word proclaimed to them. If you do not believe me, look up Bartolomé de las Casas some time, a sixteenth century Dominican friar and defender of native peoples. One of the most important aspects of Aztec culture was honoring the dead, and they had festivals where they did many of the things you see in the movie. It just so happened that the Catholic Church also had a day where they paid their respects to those gone before us. In bringing these two cultures together, you have a marriage, not a cutting off of one for another, that is responsible for the celebration of what Mexicans now refer to as El Día de los Muertos. Without the Catholic Church, it would be something different. Without the Catholic Church, there would be no Coco. In the end, without God, none of it is possible.
I will not get into whether or not Coco is an accurate interpretation of the afterlife. Though I cannot remember the review I went over this concept in, suffice to say I have done it elsewhere. In short, who knows? Nobody alive truly does, though we have been given tantalizing clues. I could also sit here and act all annoyed by the lack of acknowledgement of the Church’s role in what you see. Maybe there is the slightest of nods when you see de la Cruz playing a priest in one of his film roles, but the cynic in me says it is simply meant to be a joke. After all, they show him flying at one point. Anyway, it is a heartwarming film. It is good to honor those who have gone before us, and to not let their memory fade. The Church has been doing this for centuries, and it is part of what I love about being a Catholic. The movie speaks to this tradition, even if it does not completely acknowledge its roots, and it is worth checking out.