Ever wonder if your family has any skeletons in the closet? Miguel Riviera in Disney’s Coco definitely did. In this family friendly, colorfully animated musical film set on the Día de Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead, Miguel travels to the fantastical afterlife to uncover his family’s biggest secret.
The Rivieras have a multi-generational music ban because Miguel’s great-great grandfather left home to achieve his musical dream, leaving behind his wife and young daughter, Miguel’s Mama Imelda and Mama Coco. As Mama Imelda has passed away, the only person in the Riviera family to remember the identity of the unknown musical ancestor is elderly and senile Mama Coco.
As a 12-year-old living in a small village in Mexico, Miguel feels like an outsider in a family of shoemakers. Uninterested in the family business, his dream is to be a musician like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz. In his safe space in the attic, Miguel has collected trinkets and memorabilia of the popular musician. By watching tapes of de la Cruz’s movies and performances, Miguel taught himself how to sing and play the guitar using an old guitar he found in the attic. Miguel’s family has long since disapproved of music, which is why Miguel cannot let them know about his secret fascination with music or perform in public. When he tries to enter the annual talent competition at the village’s town square, his family, especially his abuelita, cracks down. The music competition coincides with el Día de Muertos, a Mexican holiday the Riviera family takes very seriously.
During the holiday, Mexican families will put photos of ancestors on a mantle and invite them to come back from the afterlife using marigold petals and the ancestors’ favorite foods as a lure. Guided by paths of marigolds laid out by their descendants, ancestors can cross over a marigold bridge from the afterlife to the world of the living. Miguel’s abuelita takes this holiday very seriously and tries to convince her grandson to help her prepare for their ancestors’ visit. Teenage Miguel is disinterested and frustrated by his family’s expectations for him. By accident, he breaks the frame of his great-great grandmother Mama Imelda’s photo, or ofrenda. When he retrieves the photo from the broken frame, he discovers a folded section of the photo, revealing that his unknown great-great grandfather played a guitar similar to that of Ernesto de la Cruz. Miguel draws the conclusion that he and his family are descendants of his famous idol, leading him to confront his family and revealing his secret desire to be a musician. In the heat of the moment, Miguel’s upset abuelita destroys his guitar, leading Miguel to run away from his family.
Miguel’s act of rebellion on the Dead of the Day plunges him into the adventure of a lifetime. In a strange series of circumstances, Miguel finds himself able to see and communicate with the spirits of the ancestors. He learns that his ancestors continue to live on in skeletal form. With the guidance of ancestors he knew only from the ofrendas on his family’s mantle, and some new friends, Miguel not only uncovers the family secret but also learns valuable lessons about the importance of family and solidarity in the colorful and fantastical afterlife.
Director Lee Unkrich and his team at Pixar’s efforts to create a culturally conscious film were successful. Coco is the first Pixar film to feature a minority lead and to include an almost all-Latino cast that seamlessly slips in and out of Spanish and English. Additionally, Coco pays homage to important aspects in Mexican history and culture through song and characters such as artist Frida Kahlo. The film’s cheery Spanglish score helps to keep the mood up in this emotional hero’s journey. The multiple appearances of the song “Remember Me” brings the storyline full circle.
While a children’s film, the upbeat score, skeletal slapstick humor, rich visuals, and multilayered characters weave together a storyline that also appeals to adult viewers. Addressing questions about death, memory, and obligation, Coco manages to be entertaining while encouraging viewers to think about and be thankful for their family.
Perfect for Thanksgiving, this heart-warming and uplifting coming-of-age story celebrates Mexican culture and presents a tear-jerking and emotional journey for kids of all ages. The message of Coco remains heartfelt and important. Many can relate to the struggle between staying faithful to one’s dreams and one’s duty to family and culture.
Featured Image by Pixar