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Coco: Thanks to the matriarchs 5 min read

Coco: Thanks to the matriarchs

One of the best Pixar's ever made, hands down.

By Cary Littlejohn
Coco: Thanks to the matriarchs Post image

As promised, this begins The Pixar Project, where I’m going to review all of the Pixar films in the run-up to the Dec. 25 release of Soul. If you know a friend or relative or Pixar aficionado who’d enjoy this project, please pass it along.

Coco was yet another Pixar film I watched in the company of my mother on a Thanksgiving night. I hadn’t revisited it since that night, and the lasting memory was the gun-wrenching ending and the absolutely beautiful smile of Mamá Coco when she remembers her father as his song for her had always implored.

Watching it again, it very well may be my favorite of them all. There’s just so much this film does well, from the story to the technical beauty on the screen to the themes and ideas explored within it.

Young Miguel is a musician at heart, but in his heart alone because music is forbidden in his home due to the family legend of his great-great-grandmother. She was married to a musician who one day left and never came home, leaving her alone to raise a child, Coco, alone. She worked hard to forget all musical things; it helped her forget him.

Miguel simply wanted to perform, and he took his inspiration from Ernesto de la Cruz, the most famous musician in the world. Miguel makes a startling (if ultimately incorrect) discovery: de la Cruz is his great-great-grandfather. Through the magic of Día de los Muertos, Miguel passes over to the other side, the land of the dead, and meets the deceased members of his family. He seeks out de la Cruz to receive his blessing, the blessing of a musician, to return to the land of the living. Along the way, he befriends Hector, who’s in jeopardy of being forgotten in the land of the living, so he wants Miguel to take his photo back to place it on his ofrenda so he’d be allowed to cross over.

By the end of the film, it’s revealed that not only is de la Cruz not Miguel’s family, but he’d actually murdered Miguel’s real family: Hector. Miguel learns how de la Cruz’s most famous song, “Remember Me,” was written by Hector for his daughter, Coco. When Miguel returns to the land of the living, he sings a tearful rendition of Hector’s version of the song, which is distinctly different from the way de la Cruz performed it, and it was like someone turned a long-lost key, unlocking memories and words that Mamá Coco seemed incapable of for quite some time.

I could spend this entire post writing about the representation in this film. One of the magical things about Pixar films is that they often find a way to make us fall in love with non-human characters: monsters, cars, bugs, fish. But when it does focus on humans, it’s been overwhelmingly white: Andy and his toys, the Incredibles, Merida and those in Brave, Riley and her parents in Inside Out.

For the first time, a Pixar film that celebrates some diversity, and what a rich immersion in numerous aspects of Mexican culture. When Soul is released in a few days, the net will grow a little wider as Pixar finally makes a Black character the center of one of its stories.

I could write hundreds of words about the celebration of art. It’s music in the film, but it speaks to my writer’s heart just the same. The film reminds us that there are incredible thoughts and concepts and melodies residing inside of us, and it revels in the joy of expressing that creativity. It’s hard to watch young Miguel and not find his enthusiasm for his secret hobby to be wildly infectious.

But I’ll turn my focus to the film’s importance on family. There remains something traditional in Coco’s presentation of family; it’s a sprawling, multi-generational affair for Miguel, but it started from the seeds of a broken home, kept alive by a fierce and determined matriarch.

The year before the film came out, very nearly to the day, my family’s matriarch suffered a stroke. It was as if someone blew out the hub of a wheel, and the spokes weren’t quite sure what to do anymore. We were initially very scared that we would lose her, and it slowly became clear that wasn’t going to be the case. She was able to go home, and the family rallied to her side, taking on the enormous task of providing a great deal of the care themselves.

The great-great-grandmother status enjoyed by Coco wasn’t required for me to see my granny in that same light. I know those memories of her in the hospital flashed through my mind as I watched the film, but more than that, it was the slow, monotonous nothingness that had become her days that sank in when I saw those early scenes in the film where Coco calls Miguel by the wrong name. He explains that she forgets sometimes in her old age, and then a montage plays where he finds great value in talking to her nevertheless. It’s presented as one of those mutually beneficial relationships: She never tired of his young boy energy, and he never took offense that she rarely, if ever, had any response for his constant talking.

I remember how often I visited my granny before the stroke, and how I’d tell her literally anything and everything. She’d make me mountains of food without really ever asking if I was hungry: fried chicken tenders, French fries, and homemade honey mustard. She’d sit and listen and dispense wisdom, but even if she’d had said nothing at all, I’d feel all the better just because I’d been able to get it off my chest.

The stroke didn’t rob her of her mind; she’s still remarkably sharp, keenly observant in her shrunken world, and fast with a sense of humor. I’m so thankful for that, but I can’t help but mourn that which was taken from me and the rest of my family as I celebrate all that remains. There’s no way to talk about it without indulging in rank selfishness, but it’s been on my mind lately as a marker of just how much things have changed.

In the new year, my granny will move into a nursing home. I won’t be there for it when it happens. That would be enough to weigh on a person in the best of times, but this is the time of COVID-19 and my home state of Tennessee is making national news as one of the worst states in the nation (making it one of the worst places in the world) when it comes to the virus.

I don’t have smart or insightful things to say about it, any of it. I simply wish it weren’t happening; I wish many things had gone differently.

It was perfect that the film made a song the key to unlock Mamá Coco’s mind. The lyrics of that song crush my chest like a direct hit from a sledgehammer, all the more poignant in the four years of her new enduring reality because I’ve rarely been physically near to her during this time:

Remember me

Though I have to say goodbye

Remember me

Don't let it make you cry

For ever if I'm far away

I hold you in my heart

I sing a secret song to you

Each night we are apart

Remember me

Though I have to travel far

Remember me

Each time you hear a sad guitar

Know that I'm with you

The only way that I can be

Until you're in my arms again

Remember me

Watching Coco made it impossible for me to think of anything but the power and gravity of these amazing women who seemingly hold entire solar systems together by sheer force of will.

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