Five Things Pixar’s Coco Got Right About Grief

Now, we know we are a little late to the game on writing a post on Coco, seeing as it came out last November.  (To be fair, we did a podcast about it, but we won’t hold it against you if you missed it. We realize at least 95.5% of you didn’t even know we had a podcast until reading that sentence). If you’d rather listen, just hit play below. If you would rather read, don’t press play. Just keep going.

As Day of the Dead/Dia de Los Muertos is upon us, this movie has come up a few times recently. In one of our trainings last week I was startled that, in a room full of grief-interested mental health professionals, there we a number of people who had never seen Coco. Now, you may be thinking “maybe they don’t have kids”.  Sure, but I don’t have kids either! Coco is just one of those movies that anyone who is grieving, has ever grieved, or will ever grieve should watch. Don’t worry, we’re getting to give of the reasons why.

But first, for those of you who have never watched a Pixar movie, I should prepare you. Pixar movies are not your everyday kids flicks. They’ll make you smile, they’ll make you laugh, and sometimes they’ll make you cry. And I don’t just mean well-up or single-streaming-tear cry. I mean blotchy-face, ugly cry. Don’t believe me?

But don’t worry, Pixar always makes it well worth your while, and Coco is no exception. In fact, I would say it is actually heavier on the laughs and lighter on the cries than you might guess, considering the theme of the movie. After several attempts to write a decent synopsis of the film, I remembered there is no reason to reinvent the wheel when IMDB has already compiled a zillion synopses here.  And Disney/Pixar of course has their own (don’t worry, no spoilers): “Despite his family’s baffling generations-old ban on music, Miguel dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz. Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself in the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead following a mysterious chain of events. Along the way, he meets charming trickster Hector, and together, they set off on an extraordinary journey to unlock the real story behind Miguel’s family history”.

So what does Pixar get right in this movie? Why should you watch it (or re-watch it, or re-re-watch it?) in honor of Dia de Los Muertos?

The living can have an ongoing relationship with the dead. 

This, of course, is not something that Pixar invented. This is at the heart of the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration (and of one of our favorite grief theories, Continuing Bonds theory). Family members are remember and talked about for generations. Families make altars (ofrendas) to remember those who have died. (Those of you really old school WYG followers might remember when Eleanor and I built our own Day of the Death ofrenda a few years back). In Miguel’s world, he knows the faces and the stories of generations of family who came before him. Though he never met them, they are very much a part of the family he knows and loves.

People live on as long as we remember them. 

In the Land of the Dead, people continue to exist as long as they are still remembered by someone on earth. By remembering the deceased on an ofrenda, they can come to the land of the living one day of the year, on Dia de los Muertos. In the Land of the Dead, it isn’t until the last person on earth stops remembering you that you die the ‘final death’. This is based on a Mexican tradition of three deaths: the physical death, the body being laid to rest, and the third death when the last memory of a person fades.

Grief doesn’t have to be about letting go and moving on.

An article in The Independent about Coco, they describe the huge paradigm shift the director had to undergo when he realized his cultural understanding of grief ran completely contrary to what Dia de los Muertos is all about.  “Interestingly, director Lee Unkrich admitted Coco’s storyline actually pivoted from his original idea of a boy trying to get over the grief of a loss, in order to more accurately reflect Día de Muertos’s cultural purpose and the Mexican attitude to death, adding: ‘I’m American and that was at the time my natural entrance into a story. We realised that that thematically was antithetical to what Día de Muertos is also about, which is this obligation to never forget, to never let go. We at that point had an epiphany that we were making the film as outsiders’. 

Avoiding hard feelings and memories can mean avoiding joy. 

Miguel’s family’s ban on music is generations-old and comes from the deep hurt Miguel’s great-great-grandmother experienced when her husband left to become a famous musician. Though this has allowed the family to avoid something they associate with fear, hurt, and pain, it prevents Miguel from living his dream, practicing his talents, and celebrating his family history. In order to avoid the bitter, the family avoids the sweet (at least until Miguel is determined to change that!).

Fear of the dead and of grief is a cultural construct. 

In some great research funded by New York Life in conjunction with Comfort Zone Camp, researchers found parents are often worried about bringing up a person who died with their children, worried they will upset the child. Children, on the other hand, say they wish they talked about people who died more and had more memories of loved one’s who have died, but also say they often don’t bring it up for fear of upsetting their parents. It is not uncommon for American families to describe a silence around the person’s name that can begin to emerge. What Coco (and Book of Life before it) remind parents and children alike is that our families decide how we will honor those we have lost. As individuals and as families, we can choose to remember and celebrate Though remembering and talking can be hard and sad sometimes, it is also what allows for a connection to memories filled with joy and love.

Feeling inspired to watch Coco for Dia de Los Muertos this year? Seen it already? Tell us what you thought or give it a watch and come back to tell us what you think!

October 30, 2018

4 responses on "Five Things Pixar's Coco Got Right About Grief"

  1. Loved this movie… Watched it with my grandchildren after my husband died this past May… They loved their Papa dearly and spent many days with him during his illness
    Before the movie started (they had already seen it), they warned me that I might cry. Of course, I did… but I also laughed.

  2. My 14 year old grandson have me watch this movie with him. He had stage 4 cancer. He fought a long hard 7 year battle. Tomorrow will be 5 months that he has transition and gone home to be with God. I think I will suggest that the family and I sit down and watch this movie together and honor of my grandson Romello. It was a great movie and Romello whenever be forgotten.

  3. Great article! I loved Coco so much that I went out and bought it and told everyone about it. It was sad since I had lost my dad and there were parts that definitely made me cry, but it also made me happy and think about grief differently. I plan on watching that movie for Dia De Los Muertos and celebrating my Dad’s life.

  4. Absolutely love this movie! My wife and I watched it after her grandmother passed away last year and we cried.

    Little did I know that I’d be watching it a second time after my my own wife unexpectedly passed in May of this year.

    That second time was difficult and I wept deeply, but the messages are so true and reassuring, it was well worth it.

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