Little Miguel loves music. His family? Not so much. Or rather, not at all.
You see, Miguel’s hardworking family has a long, proud tradition of crafting fine shoes. Miguel will one day join the family business, they presume. But playing music? His family is having none of that.
Four generations ago, his still-despised great, great grandfather abandoned his family to pursue a career in music. He never returned. Generations passed, but the music man’s betrayal was never forgotten … or forgiven. Since then, no one in the family has been allowed to do anything even remotely musical, lest the tragic pattern repeat itself.
Miguel understands why his family bans music in every form. But he loves it anyway.
Miguel secretly plays a homemade guitar in his attic. In fact, he’s erected a shrine of sorts to Mexico’s most famous singer: Ernesto de la Cruz. And little Miguel harbors hopes of becoming a real musician himself one day, no matter what his family might say.
But first, there’s the Día de los Muertos to celebrate, the annual Day of the Dead. In this indigenous Mexican religious tradition, the living honor the dead at cemeteries one special day each year, bringing pictures and offering food and gifts to deceased ancestors, who are believed to be present in spirit. Ancestors who don’t have a relative remembering them? Well, they eventually turn to ash in the colorful afterlife known as the Land of the Dead.
The Day of the Dead celebrations include a local music contest. Miguel hopes to compete—secretly, of course. But before the Day of the Dead arrives, his grandmother catches him practicing and angrily smashes the little guy’s beloved instrument.
Crestfallen and desperate, Miguel hatches a risky plan: Taking Ernesto de la Cruz’s famous guitar from the musician’s crypt. But as Miguel discovers, the Day of the Dead is a time to give back to those who’ve passed on, not to take things from them.
The consequence of his rash decision? Being transported to the Land of the Dead himself. It’s a vibrant, beautiful place in many ways. Still, one doesn’t want to end up in the Land of the Dead if one is in fact not yet dead. But if Miguel hopes to return to the land of the living, it will involve reconnecting with his deceased relatives there … and tracking down Ernesto de la Cruz himself.
Coco focuses on two intertwined themes: the importance of family and the power of music.
We repeatedly hear variants on the idea, “Nothing is more important than family.” Near the end of the film, one of Miguel’s deceased ancestors tells him, “Never forget how much your family loves you.” The film delivers the unmistakable message that cherishing our family here and remembering those who have passed on are both important.
Music is also shown to be a positive, life-giving force, even though Miguel’s family is initially suspicious of it. By the time the credits role, however, most of them embrace a new appreciation for how the songs we pass on from generation to generation have special meaning.
Miguel meets a character in the Land of the Dead named Hector who helps him in his quest to reach Ernesto. Hector, and at times Miguel’s family, all make sacrifices to deliver the boy back to terra firma.
The film also delivers what is perhaps Disney’s core philosophical message: “Follow your heart, seize your moment.” As Plugged In has talked about repeatedly over the years, in some ways this message of encouragement to chase our dreams is a positive one. Pursued to extremes, however, it can devolve into something dangerously narcissistic, too, a theme I’ll return to in Other Negative Elements.
Mexico’s Day of the Dead—an indigenous belief system, the film tells us in the credits—plays a central role in everything that happens in Coco. (And though that holiday has historically had links to Catholicism in Mexico, there’s hardly anything here that deals with that connection.) The story walks us through a fairly intricate theological understanding of what happens after we die, so much so that one of my fellow Plugged In reviewers likened it to a “Sunday school” lesson about this belief system.
In a nutshell, we learn that those who die pass on to a wondrously beautiful afterlife that—apart from its residents being mostly just skeletal—is a lot like this world. They go to concerts. They drink, laugh, play, spend time with other deceased relatives and friends.
One day a year, however, some of them have a chance to walk across a bridge of leaves to revisit the land of the living, though only as ghosts who are invisible to those who are still alive. They’re only granted that access, however, if someone still has a photograph of them and is displaying it. No photo on display, no “passport” back for a day. At the deceased’s grave sites, relatives leave offerings for their ancestors. “Things they loved in life,” one person says.
But there’s another, deeper and more unsettling layer to these beliefs as well. Once no one alive remembers you any more, you fade into dust. Annihilation, it would seem. “The final death,” one character calls it. (Indeed, we see that fate played out in one pitiable minor character’s life.)
Miguel’s decision to steal Ernesto’s guitar ushers him magically into the Land of the Dead. In order to get back to the land of the living, Miguel must obtain the blessing of one of his relatives there—many of whom he soon meets. This seems as if it should be pretty straightforward, but various plot twists make earning that blessing more difficult than expected. And if he can’t get back by sunrise the next day, he’ll be trapped in the Land of the Dead forever. (As the clock ticks down, Miguel’s hands slowly begin to turn to bone, like the other deceased residents there.)
Magical creatures known as “spirit guides” can be found in the Land of the Dead as well. They can take many forms, large and small, several of which we see in the film.
Miguel’s grandmother describes her contempt for music in spiritual terms, saying of her own grandfather’s abandonment of the family, “That man’s music was a curse.” Miguel tells someone, “I just want to get de la Cruz’s blessing. I want to prove that I’m worthy of it. Ernesto tells a woman, “You must have faith, sister.”
A couple of times, we see crosses—including quite a few gravestones featuring them in a cemetery. But other than those occasional glimpses at that Christian symbol, there’s nothing in the film’s spiritual worldview that has anything to do with Christianity
Ernesto is portrayed almost as a Mexican Elvis. Not only was a he a famous singer, but he was an actor as well. Miguel watches movies of him, one of which includes a romantic scene of him kissing a woman.
In the Land of the Dead, Miguel stumbles upon a man painting a completely unclothed female skeleton, a scene that’s obviously intended to suggest a man painting a nude.
In a flashback early in the film, we learn that Ernesto was tragically killed while performing when a giant bell fell on him (a scene that’s played with dark humor).
Once Miguel is transported to the Land of the Dead, he discovers that its skeleton-like residents have bodies with many seemingly detachable parts, such as heads, jawbones, eyeballs, etc.
On a more serious note, we (and Miguel and Hector) watch as a man who’s been forgotten turns to dust and blows away—one of the most poignant and quietly disturbing scenes in the film.
A woman hits a man repeatedly. Someone is tossed in a deep well, and another character falls from a great height. Slapstick violence fills frantic chase scenes. Miguel falls in a swimming pool and is rescued by Ernesto. Someone who wants Miguel to stick around in the land of the dead tells him, “I hope you die very soon.” We hear a story about someone being poisoned.
Mild interjections and name-calling include “shoot,” “heck,” “stupid,” and “you rat.”
In the Land of the Dead, many people celebrate with what appear to be alcohol-like drinks.
A man in the land of the dead who is on the verge of being forgotten drinks from a bottle. We also glimpse a close-up of a shot glass.
There’s a visual gag about “sporty underwear for wrestlers.” Miguel breaks into a crypt and steals Ernesto’s guitar. Hector manipulates Miguel with a lie. Many, if not most, of Miguel’s relatives—both living and dead—harbor an outsized fear of music that causes them to treat Miguel cruelly at times.
[Spoiler Warning] Ernesto, for his part, is increasingly shown to be someone who’s taken his desire to make music too far. Though he says it means everything to him, we also see how that passionate focus on music has repeatedly caused him to treat those close to him quite shabbily indeed.
Coco left me feeling conflicted. It’s a typical Pixar movie in many respects: vivid, imaginative, rollicking, winsome and tender. And the filmmakers never waver in their focus on the importance of family.
But is it possible to focus on the family … too much? And the surprising answer here is, I think, yes.
Coco unpacks a theological system with Aztec roots that arguably steps over the line from honoring the family to worshiping it. The living bring gifts for the dead. The dead quietly return to briefly see the living for one special day.
The presentation of this belief system is no doubt touching and beautifully rendered. But the beliefs we see earnestly depicted here nevertheless remain at loggerheads with orthodox Christian teaching in a long list of significant ways. There’s no sense of judgment or accountability for anyone’s sinful choices, as evidenced by the fact that some of those who “enjoy” the best afterlife in the Land of the Dead have perpetrated horrible things in the land of the living. And eventually, most folks fade into nothing when they’re forgotten by the living—a grim, hopeless prospect indeed. Finally, Coco never grapples at all with the question of God’s connection to this realm of the dead, either.
So despite this film’s eye-popping beauty and its heartwarming moments, Pixar’s latest still packages a pagan worldview that’s in sharp conflict with Christian beliefs. That’s an issue that should prompt parents to pause and consider how best to deal with it if you’ve been planning on packing up the family and heading off to multiplex to see Coco.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.