November 25, 2017

Bittersweet Coco

Disney - Pixar's stunning Coco is an incredible work of art from so many perspectives, but it is ultimately a mixed bag for young children and their parents. The characters are rich and emotionally complex. But mostly, they are dead, and this creates some of the most difficult pieces to reconcile as a parent (or grandparent) of young children wanting to see the film.

The Mexican celebration of Día de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead, forms the foundation for the events of the movie. The main characters build ofrendas (altars) as part of the lively celebration to invite the spirits of the departed to visit them on the holiday, allowing them to cross over into the land of the living for the celebration. If their photo is not on the family altar, and if they are forgotten, those living on the other side disappear into nothingness.

Miguel, the young boy who is the heart of the film, is a musician at the core of his being. This creates difficulty for he and his family, and it seems only his small street dog Dante- a reference to the famous poem- understands him. The family hates music because a beloved patriarch had deserted them in order to find success and fame. In a town that is alive with music, it's all around Miguel, fanning the flames of his desire. Not for fame, but for the ability to follow his dream and create music he loves.

The animation in his village is gorgeous and true to life. Having spent so many family vacations in rural Baja California when I was a child, I can attest that the artists did their homework in capturing the charm of the small town. The artwork is as vibrant as the music that's played. 

Yet, it's absolutely nothing compared to the imaginary world Miguel encounters when he finds himself in the land of the dead. In this next world, there's an equal energy and color that is very appealing. From an artistic standpoint, the animators did a brilliant job creating a world we would love to explore. There's nothing dark to be found aside from the outskirts of the city. It's a different twist on the afterlife, but it draws on an appealing idea of what we might like it to be. An effective take on the place, playing on the same fascination with the spiritual world that makes Disneyland's enduring Haunted Mansion attraction so appealing.

The story gets high marks for reinforcing the value of family and sacrifice for the greater good. It even wins points for dealing with lack of forgiveness, selfishness, and bitterness. But there's a dark undertone that punctuates the whole morality tale. 

While I certainly do not get my theology from popular films, I certainly can't run away from the spiritual aspects of this film. Nor would I not attend a movie, animated or otherwise, because of themes contradictory to my beliefs. If so, I'd never enter a theater.  That said, because its theology is so central to the story, I can't ignore it either. 

There's a interesting mix of theologies in Coco, ultimately setting aside Biblical truth. (According to Jesus Christ himself, eternity exists for all humans- a place in Heaven or Hell dependent on each individual's acceptance of Him as Lord and Savior or not. See Matthew 5 and 10, and Luke 5 in your Bible.) The newest Pixar flick is interwoven with religious ideas, folklore, and mysticism. (Theologians refer to this as syncretism, the mixing of multiple religious beliefs.) But there's no need for a Savior here because there's no penalty for sin, only an end to eternal life if not remembered by your family. Heady stuff. Even if its true to the Mexican culture, the belief system taught in Coco intertwines some aspects of Roman Catholicism with those of other indigenous thoughts, including the idea of "spirit guides" being with them and guiding them into the netherworld.  

This is not new territory for Disney. The company's television show, Elena of Avalor has already included the supernatural companions. All said, this means younger children need the opportunity to hear from their parents about the individual family's religious beliefs, Christian or otherwise. 

Why is a parental follow-up necessary? Even traditional Disney animated classics are filled with characters and often pagan plot lines that are troublesome when compared to the truths found in Biblical Christianity. It's easier to look at other Disney films that deal with mythology (such as Hercules) with a bit more forgiveness because we as Westerners now doubt anyone in Europe really believes in multiple deities. Even Moana gets a bit of a pass in this department as the Hawaiian culture has a relatively small group of folks who follow the religious part of their culture. Coco is in a different league entirely. Millions of people adhere to the theology being taught alongside the important lessons of love, forgiveness, and the pursuit of dreams.

Back to the film. Act One sets the stage for the story, hitting a high mark. Act Two lags a bit, even getting very, very serious in tone as some of the main characters reveal there are skeletons in their closets, including some very evil deeds. Although at times the music gives viewers the feeling of sweetness and joy, there's very little comic relief in Coco. That alone sets it apart from other Pixar films. Imagine Act One of Up lasting for an entire film. It's that intense, and it's probably the point that younger children would lose interest. Act Three is a fitting conclusion, full of bittersweet moments. Pain, suffering, and disappointment co-mingled with warmth, love, and peace. Much like life itself.

Many critics are hailing Coco as a return to form for Pixar. It is a refreshing change of pace from all the recent sequels as well as something new in the realm of settings and characters. And it is true to the culture, making it an excellent addition to the Mexico pavilion at Epcot. (Particularly if the company continues to force the stable of characters into their parks. Rest in peace El Rio del Tiempo!) However, it does drag in the second act, moving it away from the top tier of Pixar films.

Should you see Coco? The choice is always yours. As an animation fan, it's a solid but imperfect work of art. View it as such. If you're taking children with you, be responsible have have the important spiritual discussions with them after the film. There's certainly plenty to talk about.

(Art copyright Disney - Pixar.)

No comments: