Coco: Family and Remembering
In the past at our church we have watched a movie and offered a theological review of the story and themes as they contrast or illustrate the gospel. This can be a tricky thing to do well and we haven’t done it for every movie. On the one hand, movies are fun entertainment. But is it just a movie? Some may be resistant to thinking too deeply about something that really is just an escape, a piece of entertainment to enjoy. But is it just a movie? On the other hand, movies tell stories that resonate with people. Stories can capture how people see the world and the potential to shape how we see things and identify how we make meaning out of our lives. Every culture uses stories to pass on important life lessons. The two should be held in tension: movies are not neutral in what they want to communicate but they are also for our enjoyment and not necessarily intended to be taken too seriously. Christians should approach movies with a recognition of what the movie is trying to do. Some movies are intentionally more “preachy” than others. No one takes Michael Bay’s Transformer movies seriously (on any level). But other movies that are often nominated for an Oscar are drama’s they are very intentional about what they want to say. In my opinion, Coco is in the middle. Don’t take it too seriously, but don’t be naive about it either.
Coco praised for its good story telling, accuracy in depicting traditional Mexican culture, the beautiful scenery and music. The movie’s setting is a rural Mexican town and the land of dead and the mythology of Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead. It has deeply resonated with Mexican people and those of Mexican heritage. But it has resonated with lots of people beyond that for its touching tale about family. It is important to recognize the setting of the movie contains a mix of traditional Mexican ofrendas, the spirit animal guides of Mayan mythology, and mythological beliefs about Day of the Dead, these elements are not the primary point of the movie. They are not trying to persuade you this elaborate mythology is true. The primary plot tension of the movie is similar to just about every Disney movie ever made - the tension between honoring family or tradition and the individual pursuing their true self and passions.
The movie is about a family whose trade is making shoes. They pursued this because the main character’s great great grandmother learned to make shoes after her husband left her to play music. Since then, no one in the family was permitted to play or enjoy music. But Miguel, the main character, is a little boy who loves to play music. Thus the conflict of the movie revolves around Miguel wanting to pursue his passion of music against his family’s wishes. This results in him ending up in the land of the dead where he seeks a blessing from his family to return to the land of the living. But his great great grandmother will only give him the blessing if he does not play music. He then runs away from his family to pursue his deceased great great grandfather who he believes became the most famous musician in Mexico, Ernesto de la Cruz. Along they way he gains a friend, Hector, who has no family to remember him and cannot go and visit them on the annual Day of the Dead.
Many people in other online reviews have focused on the tension of honoring family and Miguel pursuing his passion for music. This is certainly an important point. Family almost serves as a path to immortality in Coco where if one is forgotten in the living world, they fade away presumably forever, what the characters refer to as “the final death.” But from a Christian point of view, it is our spiritual family in Christ that is more important than our blood. Indeed Jesus challenged the notion that we should place anyone before him, even our own family. At the same time, Jesus said that life is not finding ourselves and gaining the world, but gaining life but losing it for Christ’s sake.
This leads to what I think is the most significant theological point to make about Coco. It has do with being remembered. Being remembered is a path to salvation in a sense, to immorality in the land of the dead (there is no resurrection). Salvation is found in being remembered by others, especially your family. One needs their family to place their picture on their family’s ofrenda (a kind of altar to remember deceased ancestors) in order to return visit on the Day of the Dead and not vanish into oblivion. We learn one character gained the whole world, but lost his soul (I will not give you spoilers about how this works out). But it also depicts a family holding grudges and withholding forgiveness until the truth is learned. In reality, families are by no means perfect and may be as much of a curse as they are a blessing. The movie ends with a very moving and touching ending as the family and Miguel experience a kind of redemption and reconciliation. Given the mixed message on the blessing and curse of family in the movie, it reveals how family cannot ultimately be our source of redemption.
The reason I wanted to focus on being remembered is that this is a very significant theme in scripture. The word remember is a rich word in the Bible, especially Deuteronomy. Genesis 8:1 says, “God remembered Noah… and the waters subsided.” He says to Noah in Gen. 9:16, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God remembers Abraham (Gen. 19:29). He remembers Rachel and opens her womb (Gen. 30:22). Samson prays the Lord would remember him in his death (Judg. 16:28). Hannahs prays the Lord would remember her. He does opens her womb (1 Sam. 1:11-19). the Lord calls his people to remember what he did for them in Egypt (Dt. 5:15; 7:18; 8:2, 18; et. al). The thief on the cross asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom, to which Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Lk. 23:43). Indeed it is not family who is our source of redemption, by it is Christ through whom we are adopted by the Father and sealed by the Spirit through faith in Christ. It is him who calls us by name and gives us salvation. It is He who remembers us.
Whether you think it is wise for you and your children to see this movie may ultimately come down to a decision of wisdom. The instructions Paul gives to Greek and Jewish Christians in 1 Cor. 8-10 and Romans 14 is very instructive on these matters. Just like food sacrificed to idols, some may feel themes of the Day of the Dead and ancestral worship is a sin for them. Paul says not to look down on them or insist that they should. But he also says for those whose conscience is weak, they should not judge the one whose conscience does not bother them (Rom. 14:3). These are matters of Christian conscience. It is up to each family to determine if their child will be too scared by the skeletons and themes of death, or will take the depictions of the after life too seriously. Others may not have an issue and their children will simply see it as a fun movie.
All Christians should be prepared to give an answer for the hope that they have (1 Pet. 3:15). We need to think theologically about the stories we tell and disciple our children to think like missionaries, and not be passive consumers of culture, or naively sheltered and unable to adequately engage the concerns of our friends and neighbors who don’t know Jesus.
As an anecdote, I offer the brief conversation we had with our six year old.
“Calvin, did you think anything in Coco was real or scary?”
“No, it was funny and silly.”
“But what do you think about the Day of Dead stuff in it? Is that true?”
“No, but it is a real holiday in other cultures.”
“Yes, but is that what we believe happens when you die?”
“No, you go to heaven or hell.”
I then really pressed by asking him how it may relate to Ezekiel 37 and the valley of dry bones which he just happen to have read about last week. But he got that too, for he said it is God who raised them up and it is God who made them alive. I reminded him that we are resurrected and not raised up as skeletons. Not every child will have the same reaction; you know your child and your conscience best. Sometimes we just watch a movie for fun and don’t analyze it. Sometimes we talk about it. It just depends on what is the wise thing to do and what demonstrates grace.
Personally, I recommend Coco and yes, I totally ugly cried at the end.
Here are a couple other resources:
You can also always check commonsensemedia.org and pluggedin.com.
This is a pretty good review that actually explains in more detail how Day of the Dead works in Mexican culture and the ofrendas.
There is also a podcast I listened to that focused on the artistic elements and the themes of family in the movie. It was accesible but long (1.5 hrs with about 20min dedicated to the short film shown before Coco).