One of the most enduring plot devices of classic Walt Disney animations is the separation of a young hero or heroine from his or her family. Dumbo, Bambi, Pinocchio, and numerous other characters all get estranged from their parents or parental figures, and the anxiety that results from the estrangement motors the stories of the films in which they appear. With this narrative trope, Disney and his storytellers mined a universal childhood fear for maximum emotional impact, and for this reason, the classic Disney features remain powerful experiences decades after they were made.
Coco, a new computer-animated feature from Disney and Pixar, presents a variation on this trope: the young hero separates from his family by choice and wants to return only when he can confront his relatives on his own terms. Mixed with his longing for reunion are the desires for self-determination and compromise—rather than explore an early childhood fear, Coco explores the difficulties of growing up and establishing oneself as an individual.
The film takes place in a small Mexican village where ten-year-old Miguel lives with three generations of his family. Miguel’s relatives want him to join the family shoemaking business when he becomes an adult, but Miguel wants to be a musician. He practices guitar in secret, watches old videotapes of a famous singer named Ernesto de la Cruz, and studies his craft. Miguel hopes to make his debut as a performer at a local celebration of the Day of the Dead, but his relatives forbid him from playing—one of them even smashes his guitar to deter him. Undaunted, Miguel breaks into de la Cruz’s tomb (which is located in his village) and steals his guitar in order to play in the celebration. This act causes a disturbance in the spirit world, and Miguel is whisked away to the land of the dead.
Miguel needs to leave the land of the dead before sunrise or else he’ll be trapped there indefinitely. To leave he needs a deceased relative to vouch for him with a customs official (the film’s depiction of the spirit-world bureaucracy is very funny, satirizing the workings of U.S. border patrol). While Miguel finds plenty of deceased family members, none of them agree to vouch for him unless he promises to give up music in the land of the living. Miguel declines this offer and goes off in search of the spirit of de la Cruz, whom he believes is his long-lost great-grandfather—he hopes to convince the singer of their blood ties and secure passage out of the land of the dead without any caveats. In Miguel’s journey through the spirit world, he gets to play guitar in front of an audience (apparently the dead have their own Day of the Dead celebrations) and assert himself in front of strangers. It’s a winning fantasy of growing up.
On his travels, Miguel meets a spirit who promises to take him to de la Cruz. This is Héctor, another musician who lived during de la Cruz’s time. Héctor becomes a surrogate family member for Miguel, providing him with guidance and emotional support. Yet beneath Héctor’s upbeat demeanor lies a sense of dread. He’s afraid that the land of the living is running out of people who remember him, and when there’s no one left, he’ll vanish entirely—a death after death. Héctor’s anxiety taps into a fear of obsolescence, which the Pixar Animation Studios mined so successfully in their Toy Story series. But whereas those earlier films used this anxiety as a source of terror, in Coco it engenders a sense of melancholy. Héctor is conscious of his isolation in the spirit world, and he hopes that Miguel, when he returns to the land of the living, will remind Héctor’s remaining living relatives to memorialize him.
To be forgotten means to lose all connection to family, and in learning this, Miguel becomes more thankful for his own family ties. His recognition engenders a longing for his living family, and this development makes Coco resemble many Disney animated classics. If the film isn’t particularly scary, it makes up for this lack of terror with a heightened sense of wonder. The land of the dead is a marvelous creation, packed with visual detail and allusions to Mexican folk art and modern painting. One doesn’t want to leave this environment at first—it seems meant to be explored and savored. It’s only when sunrise approaches and the the movie’s lessons sink in that you realize how important it is that Miguel returns to his living relatives. In returning he can live, and also create a legacy that will last after he dies.