Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, a 2009 collection of short stories by David Eagleman, imagines life beyond the grave in a variety of mutually exclusive ways. In a fragment called “Metamorphosis,” Eagleman describes a waiting room or airport-type lobby in which the departed mill about socializing — but only as long as they are remembered among the living.
When the last memory of a dead person dies on Earth, the individual’s name is called and they depart through a door to what is said to be a better place, though no one has come back to tell what lies beyond. (Eagleman calls this departure “the third death,” the first two being bodily death and burial.)
In this arrangement, some very famous souls live on for centuries, while others last only a short time. In a sad irony, many new arrivals just miss being reunited with those who had long awaited them, since the new arrivals were the ones whose memories had sustained those they missed.
It seems likely that “Metamorphosis” was an important influence on the afterlife in Pixar’s Coco, though naturally the Land of the Dead in Coco is far more colorful and varied than Eagleman’s fluorescent-lit lobby. In that respect Coco reflects another notable influence: Fox’s The Book of Life (2014), from Mexican filmmaker Jorge Gutiérrez, with which it shares a Mexican cultural milieu and a Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) theme.
With one crucial exception, almost every important idea in “Metamorphosis” shows up in Coco, including the peril of being forgotten on Earth just before the loved ones remembering you arrive.
The exception is this. In Coco, when the forgotten pass from the Land of the Dead, there is no door, and no one calls their name or tells them they are going to a better place. Their skeletal forms are wracked with tremors and weakness, and they simply fade into dust. And this is not called “the third death,” but “the final death.”
On Earth, and even in the afterlife, Mexico’s Catholic heritage has not been entirely effaced. There are church buildings and crosses on monuments in cemeteries and in homes. An image of Our Lady of Guadalupe adorns a wall in the home where our protagonist, 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), lives with his extended family.
Miguel’s elderly, irascible Abuelita (Renée Victor) crosses herself, and someone says “Santa María!” I don’t remember any actual priests or nuns, but we see that there are movie priests and nuns in a clip of a film-within-the-film starring Miguel’s hero: the late, great Mexican guitarist and singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who not only sings and plays guitar in a Roman collar, but even flies like Superman.
Yet what good is Catholic iconography when the movie pretty explicitly stipulates that life after death is strictly a temporary affair, tied to earthly memory? A stopover in skeleton-land is one thing, as long as there’s some openness to the idea that this isn’t the end. A “final death” with no hint or hope of a further stage or life beyond seems to make a mockery of that image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the crosses dotting the landscape.
Ten years ago, in Ratatouille, Linguini could mention his late mother’s belief in heaven and her being “covered, afterlife-wise.” (The tie-in short, Your Friend the Rat, includes a historical pageant in which a 14th-century bishop, slain by the Black Death, is depicted ascending into heaven in a celestial beam of light.)
Now, in a film with a Catholic cultural setting and an explicit depiction of the afterlife, heaven is not only unmentioned but virtually excluded. Alas. Coco is not a great film, but it has some notable virtues, and I want to like it more than I do.
I’m tempted to say I’d like to see the version of Coco Pixar would have made 10 years ago. Not really, I guess, since then we wouldn’t have Ratatouille. Still, I can’t help wondering what the team that made Ratatouille might have done with Coco.
In some ways they’re practically the same movie, and not just because Coco and Ratatouille are the only Pixar films with non-Anglophone cultural settings. Nor because, like too many animated films in the decade since Ratatouille, Coco also centers on a young protagonist with a creative passion his family doesn’t understand and wouldn’t approve of, though of course the family comes around in the end.
Like Remy in Ratatouille, Miguel pursues his dream — playing guitar — behind his family’s backs. Remy and Miguel each find instruction and inspiration in a deceased celebrity with an inspirational motto, an artist and entertainer who is perhaps his country’s greatest icon of his chosen field.
In both films the plot is set in motion when a misstep in the protagonist’s pursuit of his secret passion unexpectedly triggers a fateful crisis, separating him from his family and casting him into unfriendly surroundings.
Here the protagonist forms an alliance with a marginalized individual who hides him and helps him move unseen in exchange for the protagonist’s help with his own aspirations.
Remy and Miguel each come in some way face to face with his departed hero (Remy in imagination, Miguel in fact). Finally, and perhaps most strikingly, one of the two main characters learns something unexpected about his ancestry and confronts a scoundrel who plotted to steal his family legacy.
Parallels could be drawn to other Pixar films, notably Up, though the film to which Coco is most indebted is not a Pixar release, but The Book of Life, which is also about a young Mexican musician who travels to the Land of the Dead and back.
These parallels might matter less if Coco were less predictable and more daring, more soulful. Lacking any real sense of revelation, the film gets by on Latin charm, a well-polished story, dazzling imagery, and one shrewd powerhouse emotional moment at the end, like the climax of Finding Dory with the converging shell lines.
That said, after 18 straight features with hardly any nonwhite characters and/or voice actors, all but one set in the Anglophone world, the significance of a Pixar film set in Mexico, with mostly Latin voice talent, is notable. Miguel’s picturesque village, and the emphasis on the folk rituals around Día de Muertos, might make for a rather Epcot-ish pastiche of Mexican culture, but you have to start somewhere.
As Coco explains, in whole or in part, on Día de Muertos (often called Día de los Muertos in the U.S.) families gather to remember their deceased loved ones with traditions that include cemetery visits, telling stories about the departed and setting up ofrendas, altars decked with collections or offerings including photographs and tokens of the dead, candles, food and Mexican marigolds, with trails of marigold petals said to help guide the spirits of the departed to visit the living.
The film does not explain that Día de Muertos is a three-day festival coinciding with All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween), All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, or that praying for the departed is part of the tradition. What would be the point of praying?
One of the film’s most brilliant strokes is the conceit that the dead can visit the living on Día de Muertos only if their photograph has been placed on the family ofrenda. Between the realms of the living and the dead are border-crossing security checkpoints (!) where scanners identify the skeletal spirits and pull up matching ofrenda photographs — if any.
Thus, in the Land of the Dead Miguel falls in with Hector (Gael García Bernal), an unhappy rogue desperate to cross over to the living to see his kin before he is forgotten, but left off the family ofrenda.
This device dramatizes the importance not only of remembering the departed and telling their stories, but also of ritually honoring them, of keeping them present before our eyes as well as in our minds.
The film also celebrates extended family and honoring and valuing the elderly, like Miguel’s great-grandmother, Mamá Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia). “She has trouble remembering things,” Miguel explains in introductory narration (another Ratatouille link), “but it’s good to talk to her anyway.”
This isn’t just a heartwarming throwaway line. The importance of emotional connections with the elderly, of engaging them and hearing what they have to say, is crucial to the story. The film also draws on the connection between memory and music, to powerful effect. Once again, a middling Pixar movie had me in tears on demand.
Then there is the vast, kaleidoscopic, phantasmagorical realm that is the Land of the Dead. It seems at least an incipient trope that the Land of the Dead is more colorful and perhaps even more fun than the land of the living (see Corpse Bride as well as The Book of Life). This includes the iridescent alebrije, magical spirit-creatures said to help “guide” the dead on their “journey,” though no one seems to be journeying anywhere.
Interwoven with all these engaging elements is a tiresome tale about why Miguel’s family — especially Mamá Coco’s daughter, Miguel’s Abuelita — are violently opposed to music, and the complications arising from Miguel’s passion for music.
“The world may follow the rules,” Miguel’s hero de la Cruz says in an old VHS cassette Miguel watches in secret over and over, “but I must follow my heart!” While it’s true that the movie ultimately subverts this romantic individualism, once again it’s the family rule that’s wrong and the protagonist’s heart that’s right.
Coco’s flaws and limitations would sting less if it weren’t the one original Pixar film in a string of sequels, following Finding Dory and Cars 3 and preceding Toy Story 4 and Incredibles 2. Coco is better than Pixar’s last original film, The Good Dinosaur, a rare misfire. That isn’t saying much. With each new release it seems clearer that Pixar’s glory days are an increasingly distant memory.
Caveat Spectator: Mildly macabre themes and imagery; a back-story murder; problematic depiction of the afterlife. Older kids and up.