Picture this: a young child, just beginning to develop his own taste, personality, and interests, takes up an art and begins to pursue it with all the intensity and excitement of youth. Along the way, however, he feels rejected and oppressed by his family, who vocally oppose his dreams of a grand future in which his art becomes his sole focus. “Wealth and fame might look alluring now,” they say, “but getting rich as an artist isn’t as easy as it looks, and the lifestyle holds far less actual happiness than you assume!”
You know the rest, right? The child rebels, not against his parents per se, but in favor of his “true self.” He is in the grip of a noble passion that lays claim to a deeper and more important part of his identity than any prejudiced family could possibly understand. He cannot help but pursue his art and because of this, he cannot help but see his family’s warnings as small-minded and jaded –tired parables to be disproven. Succeeding against the very odds his family pointed out in the first place, the child returns home triumphant, a benevolent correction to his parents’ outdated ideas. Through his bravery and his courageous dedication to fulfilling his dreams, the child holds up an example to his family of what it means to be an individual.
If this sounds familiar, you’ve seen a kid’s movie! This plot litters the YA novels section of the library and appears tenfold each summer as the teen blockbusters crowd the theater, which is why, sitting to (belatedly) watch Coco with Emily a week or so ago, I braced myself. I have been conditioned to expect my fiction (especially film and TV for kids) with a heavy dose of the modern gospel: the self is all! Be true to yourself, no matter who stands in your way!
Any of you who have seen this flick likely shared my apprehensiveness. From the first, adorable, earnest young Miguel soldiers on in pursuit of music, an art that his embittered, vitriolic old grandmother credits with destroying her own mother’s childhood. Miguel’s great, great, great grandfather’s musical career stole him away from his young wife and the ensuing matriarchy has instilled a deep suspicion of music in the family ever since: It is forbidden! And Miguel is forced to pursue it in secret, ultimately haring off elsewhere in search of a blessing for his art. So far, just what I thought would happen. “Here we go,” I sighed, “I bet I can call the end to this one right now!”
Well, I was wrong! The whole, beautiful thing was a set-up. The folks at Disney-Pixar are excellent writers, and I think they knew I would take the bait, using my preconceptions against me.
You see, the child Miguel reads the situation just like I feared he would: he sees nothing but intolerance, unreasonableness, and senseless prejudice in his family’s warnings, where a more mature character might have seen well-meaning concern. This is why he runs off to find his idol, Ernesto De La Cruz; he’s sure that someone who actually lived the life he dreams of will understand him immediately. He need fear no stale old moralizing from a “living” symbol of pure artistic passion! The feeling of mutual understanding all young artists feel they share with their more established heroes is highlighted with a neat bit of dramatic shorthand: Miguel has tenuous (and thus, in his mind, completely irrefutable) evidence that his idol is, in fact, his much maligned great, great, great grandfather! He may have left his family, but he did it because he was destined for greatness. He was born to be the finest singer in the world, a righteous, selfless calling. If he can only find the man whose art started his family’s generational feud, Miguel is sure he can defect, proving to himself and everyone that it can be done.
As the story progresses, however, the writers spring the trap they’ve laid for Miguel and for the viewer witnessing his struggle toward self-realization. If the real issue at the heart of the story were what Miguel assumes it is – that his family has irrationally vilified music – then the solution would be simple and satisfyingly modernistic. Miguel dives into art, provides his family with a much-needed wake-up call, and emerges from the narrative confirmed in his pure-hearted instincts.
But Miguel isn’t angry with his family for rejecting music. He’s angry with them for rejecting him. This is because he has a critical flaw. Like all of us, he sees his talents and his dreams about their future significance as his very self. And, like all of us once again, he isn’t looking for just any word of affirmation: he wants a particular one! He wants to be affirmed as precisely who he believes himself to be – an artist of incomparable motives, talents, and purity. He has written his own ticket and runs away from his family because they refuse to punch it. Subtle character for a kid’s movie, eh?
The answer the creators of Coco offer to Miguel and to the viewer is an absolute tour de force. Miguel finds his idol, and…his family’s fears are entirely validated. The man himself is a conniving, self-important money-grubber, for whom music is a prop. He cannot offer Miguel a blessing, because his own life has left him alone and unblessed. He has retreated entirely into his own legend and, as a result, is remarkably shallow. But he is also – SPOILER – not Miguel’s grandfather! Instead, the humble, somewhat goofy ghost who has been helping Miguel, sidekick-style, throughout the film is revealed to be the man himself, made wiser by his pursuit of music and desirous only of the forgiveness and blessing of his family.
It is this latter vision of the artist – penniless, devoid of success or fame, but rich in love – who triumphs, as he uses his gift of music to heal his home and to bless his family.
In the end, it becomes clear to Miguel that the music itself has never been the object of his family’s ire; it is, instead, the fact that his great, great, great grandfather took his identity from his passion instead of his relationships with his people. Now taking his cue from this ancestral example, Miguel ends our story a bubbling, secure little boy, singing wildly and strumming like anything, firmly ensconced in the bosom of a family who see him and his gifts clearly and delight in watching him grow.
Beyond dazzling the eyes and ears, Coco wades into a crucial cultural debate with remarkable subtlety, elevating family as the foundation of one’s identity and the root of and most important audience for one’s art. Go have a look – you’ll thank me later.