The new Disney-Pixar movie, “Coco,” is already a great success. That’s not news—all Pixar movies are successes. The news is that an animation for children celebrates the central importance of family to identity.
This story centers on a large family extending across the generations far enough to bring together the living and the dead. The central conflict opposes loyalty in love to a dangerous individualism: a desire to become a celebrity. Who would have thought that Hollywood would take on celebrity culture?
The story takes place in a Mexican town during the Day of the Dead celebration. Parallel to the family piety that organizes the society, there is a talent show for musicians, who do not help each other and seem the only exceptions to the festivities. Family and music, for the most part, show up as opposites, as cooperation and competition, if you will.
This contrast may seem strange, which is partly why it’s placed in Mexico rather than America, but it makes sense if you think about it. This is because everyone is or can be of importance to his family, and learn about human dignity in the element of love, which is shown in its purest form in remembering the dead.
In all other cases, cooperation could be self-interested, which is of course part of the point of having a family—mutual help. But the human soul exhibits gratitude in the celebrations dedicated to honoring the dead, from whom advantages are not expected. At the same time, the living thus ensure that something of being human survives death and therefore has special dignity.
The Power and Seduction of Celebrity
The film contrasts this to musical celebrities, among whom only a few can rise to the top. You can be important as a celebrity, but you have to be important to everybody, or at least to vast numbers of people. Family is thus far more egalitarian than music, and the story reinforces the democratic teaching that you can know people you’re close to, but not strangers, however much you adore them.
Throughout the story, music is caught in a contradiction. On the one hand, it gives us all pleasure and is a spontaneous accompaniment and guide to our celebrations, as well as many other moods. On the other hand, music claims a certain independence from us because with music and beauty come our fantasies, which we are always tempted to set above us and worship. This is our sense that there is something greater to seek than the world we inhabit.
Musicians seem to have a power over us. They can make us feel things and get inside of us by some invisible power. So they can take on, especially in our times, a status of demigods or prophets. Of the people we call stars because they’re bright and we look up to them, they reach us at the most intimate level and we find it hard to give them up. Music hits us in our souls and gives us a sense of our individuality, even though what comes out of us is a mystery outside our control. This is why the movie uses music as an image of self-understanding.
This is how a story that seems almost quaint—a family in a small Mexican town engaged in a local custom—becomes immediately important for America in the twenty-first century. This is how a story that’s supposed to give kids pleasure and families a chance to have fun out of the house also reflects on society and on aspirations.
A Boy’s Journey Back Home Through the Underworld
In this little Mexican town, the most renowned man is a dead musician. Our protagonist is a boy who secretly admires him, even though he is the child of a family that strictly prohibits music, because music makes people unreliable. They lose control of themselves and, sooner than you know, they’re off chasing dreams. In the midst of this most business-like, professional, ethical creed, a boy is born who loves music and has a talent for it.
This boy, Miguel, thus brings his family to a crisis through his disobedience and must undergo an adventure. He has to travel in his world and the world of the dead, dealing with his family, past and present, and with his dead idol, who now presides over celebrations in the afterlife, all in order to learn what he should do with his life. He can neither abandon his family, nor his dream.
At some level, this journey is intended to be taken seriously. The boy is always accompanied by a dog that seems utterly comical, but at which he nevertheless marvels, because he can go in the land of the dead. We do not marvel: The dog is named Dante, after the famous Italian poet who wrote the epic of the journey into the afterlife. The movie-makers even seriously chose the dog’s breed. It is a hairless Mexican breed that mythology says accompanies souls on their journey into the hereafter.
Of course, children cannot understand these things, but the gravity of the story doesn’t diminish their enjoyment. This serious side of the story unfolds in clues only available to adults, like the reference to Dante.
Sometimes, Fantasies Lead Us Astray
Above all, the story is trying to defend family by teaching about what’s right and what’s wrong about the desire to express one’s individuality, that is to say, to fulfill one’s dreams in order to understand what those dreams really are. They are dim fantasies brought out by music and projected onto celebrities. Misunderstood and mistreated, these fantasies promote an individualism all too eager to break family ties and forget the past.
Perhaps part of the success of Pixar movies is that they offer images of family life in America, what’s right with it and what’s wrong, and which way to go. The most famous example must be the origin of the studio’s success: “Toy Story,” which shows American parents as toys, endlessly solicitous of and caring for their children, but ever fearful of being abandoned, not to say discarded and forgotten.
With “Coco,” Pixar has made an openly mythical story about the integrity of family in love. It’s time for the studio to get more recognition of its attempts to teach American families about themselves through story-telling.