On Sunday, “Coco” won two Oscars for best animated feature and best original song. Did it deserve its Oscars? My answer is yes, for the simple reason that it opened my mind and the minds of millions of Americans.
As a Caucasian woman of French and Welsh descent, I have had little exposure to Mexican culture. Most of what I know comes from books, documentaries, and my friends, so I am not an expert on Mexico or its culture by any stretch of the imagination. But when I watched “Coco,” I felt like I understood just a little bit more.
Through the eyes of Miguel, I felt what it was to be him. I felt how important family was in his culture. I felt his love for music, despite their disapproval. I felt the conflict that came between his family and following his own desires. I felt as dazzled as he was when he stepped into the Land of the Dead.
That understanding is important, because at its base, family vs. following your own desires is the main conflict undergirding the story. This conflict has been seen before. It was present to an extent in “The Book of Life,” the only other Oscar-nominated animated movie about the Land of the Dead, but “Coco” succeeds where that movie fails because its characters are more complicated and it’s more honest about how complicated the conflict can be, especially in Mexican culture.
On one hand, the audience wants Miguel to follow his desires. He’s talented and has potential that he only can’t pursue because of his family. Miguel’s frustration and anger are palpable. He loves music. He loves it so much he hides it from his family and is willing to run away from them in the land of the living and in the Land of the Dead to pursue it. Besides that, the music in this movie is stirring and beautiful, especially the song “Remember Me.” There is no reason it shouldn’t be heard. The audience can feel the pain that suppression brings and understand how it feels in real life.
From discussions with my friend, I know that this conflict is a cultural problem in Mexican families. Children are pressured to say no to opportunities to stay near their families, and as a result, dreams are suppressed in favor of pleasing the family. That is clearly not the answer, but instead of making following dreams the obvious answer, Pixar shows its flaws in the lives of Hector and Ernesto De La Cruz.
De La Cruz murders Hector, his lifelong friend, and steals his lyrics to make his dream come true. As a result, Hector never comes home and is disowned by his angry wife who must find a way to make ends meet on her own. In the Land of the Dead, he is almost forgotten until the end and is left alone. On the flipside, De La Cruz receives fame and glory while people love him, but when people discover the truth about him, he is disgraced with the implied fate of eventually being forgotten.
The message is that pursuing dreams at the expense of everything else can cause someone to abandon the people they love or turn them into a monster that is willing to destroy even their closest friends to succeed.
However, always going along with family is not the clear option either, because as this film shows in the beginning, family is not always right either. The Rivera family has an irrational hatred of music because their patriarch abandoned the family. This irrational hatred is harmful, not only because it hurts Miguel, but also because it robs others of the joy it can bring. Their hatred is completely irrational, but his family is not completely unsympathetic either. I felt for his family, alive and dead. Even though I felt angry at their prejudice and could see its foolishness, I could understand why it was there. I could understand how Hector following his dreams had hurt them. I could not hate them for that.
The conflict is eventually resolved with a compromise. Hector is forgiven and allowed back into the family. Miguel returns to the Land of the Living, and after telling the truth about Hector and showing his family how beautiful and important music is, is allowed to pursue music with his family’s support. This compromise is beautiful, because it shows one should not exclude the other and if they do, there’s a problem.
This writing is what Pixar does at its best. It does not try to create only a shallow story with stunning imagery that would appeal to children but not to adults. Pixar respects its audience enough to tell an honest story that everyone can appreciate and understand, whether they are Mexican or not. Clever story-telling and memorable characters coupled with amazing visuals and music is the reason that “Coco” deserves its Oscars.