Another day, another movie…
Today little bears are spellbound by Coco. Incredibly, it is the first time that little bears are watching the Disney Pixar animated film that celebrates the Mexican tradition known as Día de Muertos.
Coco is unlike pretty much any other film: it presents death as a life-affirming inevitability, with a story line about grudges and abandonment, the importance of family, community, tradition and remembrance, The protagonist, Miguel, is a twelve-year-old boy in the fictional Mexican town of Santa Cecilia — named for the patron saint of musicians — and he is trying to get out from under the shadow of his great-great-grandfather, who left his family to pursue a career as a musician. His wife, the ferocious Mamá Imelda, was left to take care of their young daughter, Coco. She instituted a permanent household ban on music and started making shoes.
We meet Coco as an old woman. Her daughter, Miguel’s grandmother, Abuelita, now runs the family and its shoemaking business with an iron chancla. Earnest, sweet Miguel teaches himself to play the guitar in the attic, watching and re-watching tapes of the bygone star Ernesto de la Cruz. On the Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), he accidentally shatters a framed photograph on the family ofrenda, then spots a hidden detail in the picture, one that makes him suspect that his wayward ancestor was in fact de la Cruz himself. He sprints to the town mausoleum, hoping to borrow de la Cruz’s guitar and prove the value of music to his family. Instead, the guitar turns Miguel invisible, and whisks him across a skybridge covered in thick, soft marigold petals that glow like lava. He falls to his knees in the petals, and then looks up to see a grand floating metropolis, confetti-colored in the darkness: the Land of the Dead.
The second and third acts of the movie are mostly set in this city of jubilant sugar-skull skeletons, where you exist only as long as you are remembered by the living. (You can cross over to the living world on the Día de Muertos, but only if your photo is on display.) Miguel joins up with a raggedy show-biz hustler named Héctor, who’s desperate to get his picture back up on an ofrenda, and who says he can bring Miguel to de la Cruz. Héctor lives in a waterfront shantytown filled with people who are about to be forgotten; at one point, he begs a guitar for Miguel off an ill-tempered cowboy named Chicharrón, who vanishes as soon as Héctor finishes singing an old dirty song.
Eventually, Miguel realizes that Héctor is his real ancestor, and the movie sprints to a conclusion that’s as skillfully engineered to produce waterworks as the montage at the beginning of Up. But until the end, Coco is mostly, wonderfully, a mess of conflict and disappointment and sadness. Héctor seems to have failed everyone who takes a chance on him. Miguel’s face, painted in skeleton camouflage, often droops as if he were a sad little black-and-white dog. Coco is animated by sweetness, but this sweetness is subterranean, bursting through mostly in tiny details: the way that both Mamá Imelda and Miguel’s grandmother brandish shoes when they’re angry; or how the daffy Xolo dog that accompanies Miguel on his adventure is named Dante; or how the skeletons return to their city through the Day of the Dead’s efficient T.S.A. system, declaring the churros and beer that their families gave them for their journey home.
Traveling from the land of the dead to the land of the living also requires going through Day of the Dead’s T.S.A. system. The dead must present themselves to an officer who conducts a computer search for their image. Their photo must be found on an ofrenda; if it isn’t there, it means they are no longer remembered by their family or friends, and they are not be allowed to walk across the cempasúchil bridge to the land of the living. Looks like immigration is tough even in the afterlife.
Before Coco hit theaters, it was easy to doubt that the movie would present Mexican culture as expansively and gorgeously as it does, with such natural familiarity and respect. It is Pixar’s nineteenth movie, but its first with a nonwhite protagonist; Lee Unkrich, the director and creator of the initial story, is white. The movie’s working title was Día de Muertos, and, in 2013, Disney lawyers tried, absurdly, to trademark that phrase. But Unkrich and his team approached their subject with openness and collaborative humility: they travelled to Mexico, they loosened Pixar’s typical secrecy to build a large network of consultants, and, after the trademark controversy, they asked several prominent critics to come onboard. Coco is the first movie to have both an all-Latino cast and a nine-figure budget. It grossed more than 800 million dollars worldwide, won two Oscars, and became the biggest blockbuster in Mexican history.
Día de Muertos has its roots in a pre-Hispanic commemoration of deceased loved ones that is practiced by some Latin American indigenous populations. The film draws its cultural inspiration from several Mexican variations of this tradition, which also happen to be those most commonly found in the United States.
Within Mexico there are many regional and community-specific interpretations of the tradition. There are the indigenous traditions of celebrating ancestors as they were practiced before the arrival of Europeans, with many distinct variations within the local communities. Then there is the Day of the Dead that merged with Roman Catholic practices after the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. There is the Mexican national celebration, the Day of the Dead tradition introduced to the U.S. by Mexican Americans during the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the Day of the Dead traditions that are practiced by recently immigrated Indigenous Latino populations in the U.S. To name a few.
The representation in Coco is a composite, but the individual elements would be recognizable to those familiar with the tradition. The film is rich in Day of the Dead imagery such as decorated cemeteries and ofrendas (offerings) — temporary memorial spaces devoted to deceased family and friends. These spaces are filled with favorite foods and beverages, images of loved ones, candles and an abundance of cempasúchil (marigolds). Even the bridge between the place of the living and the place of the dead is made of cempasúchil petals.
Some of the movie’s characters, in both human and skeletal form, come straight out of central casting. You find celebrities like Frida Kahlo, Lucha Libre wrestlers and mariachi musicians in traditional regalia, as well as an assortment of relatives whom we can all identify. Some of the characters are neither living humans nor skeleton beings, but they are certainly well-known to most Mexicans. Dante, the Xoloitzcuintle dog who accompanies Miguel on his adventures, is a hairless, ancient breed considered to be the national dog of Mexico. Through the course of the film, Dante transforms into a living alebrije — a folk art form of fanciful, elaborately painted creature sculptures. In the movie, alebrijes are companions to the deceased.
Even the depicted spaces are recognizable to those familiar with the tradition and with Mexico. Miguel’s town evokes a tranquil colonial village complete with cobblestone streets, arched colonnades, wrought iron and clay-tiled roofs. The place of the dead, filled with all sorts of activity and nightlife, is an expansive, colorfully lit urban space built on ancient pyramids. Real-life locations in Mexico were the inspiration: the city of Oaxaca became Santa Cecilia, the land of the living, while Guanajuato became an imaginary Land of the Dead, a dazzlingly vibrant, stacked metropolis.
Coco is a powerfully communicated story about the importance of family, community, a sense of belonging, tradition and remembrance, an exploration of values that feel increasingly difficult to practice in today’s actual world.
Unless you are a little bear! It’s time for a Mexican feast 🙂