“Coco” is the kind of family film that ought to cause even Hollywood skeptics to fall in love with the movies again. It advertises that it’s a family movie from the trailer all the way to the conclusion—after a climax that will make more than a few people cry.
The animated feature is already a big hit and its commercial success is only growing. Its popularity probably speaks to certain anxieties and fantasies about the future of the family, which is endangered in ways we’re still not ready to acknowledge as a society. And that’s all to the good—the movies are our primary form of coming to grips with fears and ideas as a society.
We should praise the film, but in so doing, let us not forget to also examine its ideas. Let’s start with the obvious and the startling.
“Coco” is the adventure of one Mexican boy and his family on the feast of the Day of the Dead, when the the living are said to commune with their dead relatives. This emphasis on the pull of family extending over generations and even reaching back into a past before our birth, recalls an American innovation of Christianity, the Mormons. In both cases, family is said to be so important that it’s forever. The afterlife is family life. Is there something about a relatively rootless America that makes us yearn for some transcendental connection to our past?
This recalls another Christian idea, that marriage is, as the priest would say, “ ’til death do you part.” Today, in America as well as in other prosperous Western countries, that’s also becoming a thing of the past. Easy divorce is ubiquitous. But in “Coco” not even death can part the family. The film also boasts some heroism, and tenderness about marriage as the foundation of family. When it comes to extreme cures for loneliness, it’s hard to get more serious than this kind of permanent and timeless connection as expressed in “Coco.”
Even the title serendipitously furthers this end. Disney-Pixar must have known it could not trademark the Mexican feast of “the Day of the Dead,” so the megacorporation chose something else—the trademark being essential to its interest in making money from film merchandising until kingdom come. Hence the easily trademarkable “Coco,” which is also the name of our protagonist’s dying great-grandmother. The whole family has to learn about its past in order to stay together. And thereby the title emphasizes yet another urgent need in our increasingly rootless and transient society: the need to learn to come to terms with death.
As for the family itself, remember, folks, this is south of the border, where everyone seems to take a matriarch for granted. Multiple generations live together under one roof. Though uncommon in America, this speaks to an irrepressible human longing: to live in the element of love.
The plot of “Coco” is simple, but it presents the tension that besets our desire to live in the element of love in a free and open society. Miguel, the protagonist of this family of cobblers, wants to follow his own particular dream of becoming a music star against the strenuous and uncomprehending refusals of the family matriarch. Eventually he comes to appreciate her warnings as he comes to learn his dream is actually a nightmare. Unlike most Hollywood family comedies, this is not the predictable story of parents apologizing abjectly to their children for refusing to see the world as the young generation wants to change it. Nor is it about independence understood as abandoning family.
Instead in “Coco,” family is genuinely authoritative. The film depicts as dangerous the freedom to chase one’s dreams. This brings us to something obvious even in the trailers, but not readily noticed in most of the commentary: the American elements of the story come in for great criticism as hedonism. The boy gets himself into an adventure that threatens to kill him because he wants to imitate a music star, who also starred in movies, and who spends the afterlife in a very modern club, perpetually partying and doing concerts. This kind of immortality is shown to be specious and to advertise a paradise that does not exist except as death. When’s the last time a movie even suggested anything like that?
So far, so good, but in this process of making the family holy, what we used to call natural rights were forgotten. This is where we move from sociology to mythology. The moviemakers have stumbled onto something strange. Their political community functions as families who own their dead, such that anyone forgotten or without family is said to “die another death.” Suddenly, the immortality of the soul is lost and it’s not clear that all people are on an equal footing in terms of inherent dignity—dignity being something reserved or, even, “earned” only those who are not swallowed by oblivion because unloved.
That’s one form of justice. But is it a form of justice compatible with our own? This is a political understanding of the soul that cannot work within a modern society, but the moviemakers may be right that this is the extreme that our movement to another extreme has caused many people long for. The community gathers as a series of families, each caring for its own; whoever has been disowned or had no family is forgotten. The implications are not lost on the moviemakers, who include a joke about the problem of divorce—it will be embarrassing to the dead to visit several shrines for several families. American practice puts limits on this holiness of the family.
You might be asking: remembering the dead, souls in the afterlife, oblivion—where is God? That’s the other problem—this is an afterlife with no judgment. In a sense, that’s what we all want these days—not to be judged and found wanting, not to have to say the word “damned.” It’s hard to tell Christian stories—and it’s not much tried—but here we see the sociology and mythology clash in a failure of imagination. The afterlife is a resort, with some slums and some Vegas thrown in. Why bother dying?
Maybe this longing and this drive to make the family holy will lead us in a bad direction. This afterlife with no judgment leads us to learn some further things by implication. One is, this view of family belongs to a place with no civic culture; to a place where all you have, in Tom Wolfe’s phrase, is the call of family, of “going back to blood.” The writers seem acutely aware that in such a place artists, especially, would be punished—they’re naturally dubious inasmuch as they’re not primarily family men. That’s because myths as much as politics offer a public space away from the private space of the family. “Coco” glosses over and abstracts from that.
This exclusively private space where the adventure is set is also a place dominated by women. The musical and mythical parts of the story are dominated by men. Either way, the boy’s rebellion and his adventurous quest for music is insoluble in these terms. On the one hand, he voices an all-American opinion: family should support you. That’s love without conditions. Here the movie is quite astute about the real conditions of freedom. But is there really no limit to what family could plausibly support?
On the other hand, the family’s claim to being harmless and good, which we want to believe, leaves no room for human wickedness, except to blame male evil and disobedience. Notice that in the story females err only by loving and protecting too much; males, on the other hand, err only by rebelling against the women—rejecting home, ultimately. But the two things cannot be true at once. If a male must ever be obedient to the matriarch, what happens when she is in error through an excess of love? What can correct her?
The plot manages to save family, without damning unreliable men, by admitting that there is evil within family itself, in the form of forgotten secrets. What we get in disturbing the dead, so to speak, cannot be all good. We love our departed ones, but we cannot sanctify them. So this is the highest theme of the story, what the boy learns about his dead ancestors and therefore about how to become a man. It is woefully neglected, because it could not be solved in the terms of a love that is suffocating.
With “Coco,” Hollywood seems to have moved in a laudable direction, making it possible for a family film to have real depth and hold the attention of intelligent adults at the same time as they give pleasure to children. But it also reveals a radical problem. We love family and, in a regime whose institutions don’t seem to work, we ask too much of it. We’re tempted to abandon our natural rights and our immortal souls for a love that’s more visceral and more binding than the abstractions that fill up our public discourse.
We’re returning to an ancient warning, that love and law might turn out to be enemies, that family and citizenship are irreconcilable. Movies that show us these things are a public service—but only a first step. We need to figure out how to deal with these problems.