Does Pixar’s Coco Change How We Look at Death? – Wisecrack Quick Take
Welcome to this Wisecrack Quick Take on Pixar’s Coco!
Directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Written by: Claire Pickard
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Produced by: Emily Dunbar & Jacob Salamon
Does Pixar’s Coco Change How We Look at Death? – Wisecrack Quick Take
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here. We saw Coco last week. Everyone cried, and once we got past that god-awful Frozen “short” film, they were all good tears. Coco is a film filled with color, both literally [image of the city of the dead] and in its authentically rich portrayal of Mexican culture. But aside from the heartstring-tugging moments and gorgeous animation, it also presents a really interesting perspective on death that we don’t often see in cinema. Welcome to this Quick Take on Coco, and prepare for MAJOR spoilers. Also: warning I’m gonna butcher all the Mexican names. I’m a gringo. Sue me.
First, a recap. Set in Mexico, young Miguel Rivera loves music and wants to play guitar like his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz. But music is banned in the Rivera family since his great-great grandpa left his family to pursue a music career. After Miguel steals de la Cruz’s guitar on Dia de los Muertos, he is transported to the realm of the dead. Believing de la Cruz is his great great grandfather, Miguel ventures to find him in hopes of receiving his blessing to return to the living world. Getting to the mega-celeb is a hell of a challenge. But luckily his new pal Hector agrees to help him in exchange for putting up Hector’s photo on his family’s ofrenda— a shrine with pictures of departed ancestors— so that he’s not forgotten and is able to visit the land of the living to see his daughter.
Stuff happens and it turns out that Miguel’s great-great-grandfather is not Ernesto, but, Hector, whose beloved daughter is Miguel’s great-grandmother, Coco. De la Cruz murdered Hector, stole his songs, his guitar, and ultimately, his chance to be remembered by his family. Miguel returns to the land of the living, sparks Coco’s memory of her father by singing, puts Hector’s picture on the ofrenda, and they all live— or die?– happily ever after. As evidenced by the number of hipster sugar skull tattoos I see in L.A., many Americans are fascinated by Dia de los Muertos, and Coco isn’t the first animated film that makes use of that setting. In 2014, 20th Century Fox put out a movie called The Book of Life, which also features a boy who eschews family tradition to pursue music, is transported to the land of the dead on Dia de los Muertos, and requires the help of his ancestors to return to the world of the living. Even though these films feature similar plots, they couldn’t be more different in their portrayal of death. In The Book of Life, Manolo’s dead ancestors basically exist only to assist him in his journey and give the producers an excuse to cast Ice Cube. death is presented as something static— once you’re dead, that’s it. If you’re remembered by your family, you get to party, and if you’re forgotten, you’re a sad sack of shit, but either way, you’re dead.
Coco elevates this concept by introducing a second kind of death beyond the biological— the symbolic death of being forgotten. Once there is no one alive who remembers you, you disappear from the land of the dead, passing away a second time. That second death is brought on solely through relationships to others. In Coco, it is people’s memories that mark the difference between life and death. An interesting way to think about this is through the lens of philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who talks about death as a kind of social relation. The Western cultural understanding of death has been filtered through science to the point where we now think of death as a primarily biological phenomenon. Once your heart stops and your fingers start rotting, you’re dead. Baudrillard compares this to certain non-Western cultures in which death has a symbolic relation of exchange with the living— in these cultures, not only is death something both given and received by the living, but the dead can give and receive as well. Coco explores this system of mutual exchange between the living and the dead. Miguel needs the help of his relatives to return to the land of the living, but they need his help as well. Hector makes a deal with Miguel to bring his photo to the ofrenda in exchange for his assistance getting home, and on Dia de los Muertos, the other living characters interact with their ancestors despite not being able to see them. They eat at the gravesites, bring offerings, and authentically honor those who have passed.
It’s only the exchange that occurs on Dia de los Muertos that prevents the dead from experiencing the second, honestly way more terrifying, death that happens when you are no longer remembered. Baudrillard says that, in most Western societies, that kind of two-way exchange between the living and the dead doesn’t exist. “The dead” aren’t a group that the living interact with, and the more a society is obsessed with “rationality,” the less of a role dead people play. Among the dead people we do remember, we put them on money and on posters and learn about them in history class, but we don’t think of it in terms of a relationship. We don’t expect anything from the dead, and we don’t offer them anything either. Even the idea of that sounds pretty wild. But this removal of the dead from our social interactions changes the shape of the culture. Eventually, Baudrillard says, when the dead don’t interact with the living, they become “obliterated.” We see this obliteration in Coco, when individuals stop existing once they no longer have living relatives to participate in that exchange of remembrance and celebration and care.
Chicharrón, the only person we witness experiencing that second death, doesn’t leave a body behind, the way he certainly did in his biological death. His skeleton fades, and all that’s left of him is a guitar and a bunch of junk in a hammock. But while memory might be enough to save the dead from permanent extinction, they suffer when they aren’t able to return to the living and interact with their family. [Image of the “poor” area of the realm of the dead, or “Frieda” trying to cross the bridge] Memory matters, but the living have to be willing to give something more than that. For Baudrillard, this give-and-take between life and death would mean that dying and being born are not necessary opposites, they’re part of this big system of exchange as well, and death can be traded for life via social interactions. And although he’s not talking about Coco— we wish he was— Hector’s shift from being forgotten to being celebrated among his descendents is, in a sense, a kind of rebirth. Although he hadn’t quite crumbled into dust yet, he’s at risk of being obliterated the moment Coco forgets him, and the spark of her memory brings him back to life, even though, biologically, he’s still as dead as a doornail.
When Coco herself eventually dies, she is reunited with her parents in the land of the dead— she’s their child again, even though she looks about twice their age combined. With them, she makes her journey back to the land of the living for their yearly visit. The fruitful exchange of Dia de los Muertos still involves Coco, but from the other side of the ofrenda. There’s a reason that people cry when Miguel sings “Remember Me” at the end of the film. It’s a moment of connection between Coco and her long-gone father, but it’s also a command to all of us to not forget the dead. The performance of the song brings symbolic life back to Hector, but the words of the song itself celebrate the importance of life beyond death. For a kid’s movie, that’s pretty damn profound, although coming from Pixar, we wouldn’t expect anything less. Coco gives us all the good stuff— sweeping musical scores, an abuelita throwing a chancla at a Mariachi guitarist, and shots so colorful it’s like shooting up a box of Crayolas. But it also makes us think. Is true death when your heart stops beating or when there’s nothing left of you in people’s memories? Is the mark you leave on the world really its own kind of immortality?
Thanks for watching, guys. Hope you loved Coco as much as we did. Peace.