Give us the colors (see below), the charm and a nicely packaged ending from a Pixar studio that is known for delivering important messages dressed down as kid’s films, and it’s so easy to get sucked in. Coco just said something meaningful about family.
It really felt that way upon exiting the theater. The problem, though, with feelings that can’t be reduced to something explainable is that they can be applied as justification for anything. And when trying to deconstruct why Coco felt like such a powerful affirmation of family, there was sadly a ton of work left for the audience.
This isn’t to dismiss feelings or demand that every single thing be explainable. Nor is it to diminish the difficulty of giving an audience a feeling – Coco did this incredibly well. It is to say that when we are in the business of evaluating the THINK quotient of a film, there’s got to be actual depth.
Thought experiment: Go into Coco pretending you hate family. Pretend it is a stupid relic of a previous time when people were isolated and needed to rely on family or die alone (unlike today when we have cities filled with millions of people).
With this lens you’ll realize that the entire backdrop of Coco is built on a lie. You’ll rightfully be appalled by the hideously judgmental familial environment first constructed by Mama Imelda – an environment that forces people into boxes and banishes creativity. All because she chose to embrace the worst possible interpretation of her lover Hector’s actions. Now, she may have been reasonable in this interpretation, but that’s still not good enough justification for the musical hatred she built into the family’s ethos. Oh, and, no big deal, she was wrong about Hector.
Fast forward to vivacious Miguel. You, as someone experimenting with anti-family bias, will see him as the sad victim of an anachronistic social setup wherein personal desires must take a backseat to “the family.” Even when your family sucks. Even when you have a better way to happiness.
You’ll hate his family for refusing to listen to a wise boy. You’ll cheer when he runs away. Make that family feel pain for its close-mindedness.
And then you’ll be conflicted when he saves everyone in the end. Yes, he was aided by family members, but those were supportive family members unlike the ones in his “real” life. He changed his immediate family’s thinking. That’s great. But it shouldn’t have been necessary since they were the adults, and the necessary evolution was rather obvious.
Yea, kids can be powerful. Is that the message? Should it have required Miguel almost dying for his family to mend its ways? And what if he had died? What’s the message then? Because there are surely kids who have died trapped in awful families when a non-family setup would have yielded a better outcome. But that other setup is still family one may say. It’s just not blood. OK. But then that means everyone can be family, which is kinda the whole point of the thought experiment: your family need not be the family society/genetics says is your family.
This is where we return to that feeling and see if Coco has something to counter all the fuel it provides for that anti-family person. Why is this feeling there?
It may very well be true that a person like Miguel could find better influences than his immediate family, but what if Miguel, and not his family, was terrible and nobody wanted to be his friend, mentor or influence? This seems like the first place where the family is special.
Mama Imelda correctly understood this from the beginning when she decided to have a child. (It could have been unplanned, and it would make no difference ethically. Fun fact: 40% of pregnancies are unplanned.) There’s simply not a larger or more irreversible decision one can make than having a child. A responsible person must exchange certain desires, like Mama Imelda’s desire to be a musician, for ones focused on the life that has been birthed. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and many people will downright enjoy trading in personal desires, but the trade may become more complicated if the kid sucks.
This complication, though, is irrelevant. So when nobody else wants to help the alt-Miguel, that’s where the power of family kicks in and offers him support, compassion, disciple or whatever – the stuff he is not guaranteed to get anywhere else. (This assumes his family understands the lifetime agreement, unless it is appropriately transferred to another person (i.e., adoption), that comes with having a child. And since we are talking about the “special” feeling around family, we will assume his family understands this agreement.)
However, this only explains a downstream (parent to child) specialness, but not the reverse (child to parent).
Through the construction of an incredibly novel Afterlife (“Afterlife, oh my God, what an awful word”), Coco attempts to make the upstream case.
But by only really focusing in Afterlife, Coco doesn’t offer much for those who are living. And that’s what we are after – we want to comprehend that “family feeling” before it’s too late to matter.
I’ll try to fill in those details. Existence can be very lonely. It’s at these times when messages of “interconnectedness” among humanity is especially annoying in its abstractness. I’d love some of that interconnectedness. Where do I sign up? And can I get it without ingesting large quantities of drugs?
Perhaps the “sign-up” comes from shared experience. There are shared experiences that are very far apart – both Christopher Columbus and I were born of human mothers – and ones that are very close – both my sister and I spent years in the same house. You can get meaning from both, it’s just significantly easier to go the “close” route.
Family will always offer the “close” route. In those moments when you really lean into this, there’s a special feeling that comes from understanding that other people have gone through similar things in similar ways as you, and that you are both unique and not unique, and that all this means that, at the very least, you aren’t alone.