[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on December 1.]
Movies and shows made for children always seem to include sub-themes that resonate with adults. Maybe it’s just marketing so that parents will take their children to the theater (only $7,800 for a family of six!), but I can remember it in television shows, as well. Animaniacs was my generation’s Phineas and Ferb. Both have adult jokes running throughout that barely registered with the children who primarily watched those shows. More recently, Disney and Pixar, have made sophisticated, animated films that appeal to both children and adults. Of course, “children’s” authors have probably always included subtexts that only become clear as one ages (see the Grimms, Roald Dahl, or The Chronicles of Narnia). That’s part of the joy of having certain books read to you as a child, and then re-reading them for yourself at older ages.
I think there are two main approaches to writing books or making movies for children (besides a naked grab for money): either themes that are obvious in the world are softened or obscured so as not to scare or upset children (most modern children’s Bibles!); or those themes are not shown graphically, but they are dealt with in a serious way to show children how to work through such issues (Toy Story, Up, and Frozen). I think I was surprised when I saw Up because of how directly it showed Carl’s grief after his wife dies. The Toy Story franchise certainly deals with growing up and childhood nostalgia. Frozen focuses not on a “traditional” princess story, but on the love of sisters.
The newest critically acclaimed animated movie is Coco. (My wife felt guilty about choosing that one over The Star, but after seeing the trailer for The Star, I’m not sure she made the wrong choice. I’ll have to see which one actually contains more truly Christian themes!)
I started off with a bad taste in my mouth (as, apparently, did many others) from the banal, idiotic Frozen short that precedes Coco. Apparently Santa Claus is the “Christian” tradition in Arendelle? Whatever. Too bad the burning sauna didn’t take out both Olaf and the Yule bell—or, you know, the whole 22-minute(!) disaster.
So it took me a while to forget that and settle into Coco. But the animation is as phenomenal as you’ve heard. It’s a well-plotted story and it opens up an impressive, immersive world. As far as themes go, it doesn’t get much more serious than family and death. In some ways, Coco‘s story feels like the template for Frozen: a young boy idolizes his presumed father (like Anna falls “in love” with soul-mate Hans); young boy finds out that presumed father isn’t really his father (Hans is really a bad guy!); young boy finds real father (Anna and Kristoff!); but the story is really about an entire family, not just a father (love between sisters, not just men and women). It’s an interesting twist in a children’s story to find out that a seeming good guy is actually a bad guy, but I think it’s a positive one (not everyone who seems nice and says nice things is actually nice; human depravity, and all that).
The most striking thing about Coco, of course, is the mythology surrounding ancestors and the “Day of the Dead.” It’s clear that Día de Muertos is a combination of pre-Christian rituals and beliefs with Roman Catholic rituals and beliefs revolving around All Saints and All Souls. In actual Día de Muertos tradition, the spirits of dead children come back first (angelitos [little angels!], at midnight on October 31, and then the spirits of dead adults on November 2 (at least they get a little mezcal). It seems as though the filmmakers spent a lot of time and energy accurately portraying much of Día de Muertos. For that, and a general lack of caricature, they deserve credit.
It would be easy for Romaphobic North Americans to throw the whole thing away and put as much distance as possible between the ancestor-worship elements of the holiday and some sort of purified Christianity (a lowest-common-denominator Protestantism, naturally). And the hard thing (at least for those Christians with sterile, Calvinistic tendencies—that is, for most of American Christianity) with a movie like this is to separate out the Día de Muertos/place of the dead device from the story itself.
I don’t know how much of the imagined world of the dead to which Miguel travels is actually part of the Muertos celebration and how much is simply cartoon-world filling in the gaps. But just as it would be a mistake to confuse the narrative device in A Ghost Story for some kind of statement about the afterlife, so it would be a mistake to overlook the actual themes of this movie as a result of the pre-Christian mythology and syncretism.
I certainly have no desire to defend actual syncretism. My point is simply that the mythology can point us toward the truth. Just as (to my mind) ancient creation and flood stories—however ridiculous they may appear—point to the very real creation and flood, so also the mythology surrounding ancestors actually points us to a very Christian truth: God is the God of the living, not of the dead.
At first, my attention was on the fact that family is (nearly?) idolized. That’s probably a more serious danger to genuine Christian faith than most of the superstitions of Día de Muertos. Family is the highest good and, therefore, everything else must be subordinated and sacrificed before the ofrenda of the family. Obviously, the story has a happy ending and Miguel not only comes to recognize the significance of the family, but his family’s “curse” is redeemed by the music bequeathed to him by his great-great-grandfather.
Family is clearly a good. And, especially in a culture of fragmented, disconnected, and far-flung “families,” the story of Coco can go a long way to restoring some of what’s been lost. Familial confusion is the order of our day, and anything that can point the way to stronger, extended families and respect for those who have gone before us is something I’m happy to see.
What is missing in Coco and in any human attempt to retain human connections with family members past, present, and future, is the actual Tie that binds. Is it only memory and tradition? Will that really be strong enough? The fear of being forgotten is a minor theme, but it’s present in the area of the place of the dead where Héctor lives (with old drunks and prostitutes, apparently). The mythology is great if you have a loving family and admirers (as Ernesto de la Cruz does—at first). But what of those who are forgotten? Something stronger is needed.
And this is where Christianity’s 120-proof truth bests even the strongest draft of human mythology. Christianity actually claims to have the best and most truthful of Día de Muertos traditions, but goes even further: to the communion of the saints and the resurrection of the dead. So it’s actually true that we are intimately connected to the dead who have died in the Faith. But the connection is not merely through traditions and memories (strikingly parallel to the merely symbolic meaning of the Sacrament of the Altar), but through the living Jesus, who through His own Body connects Christians of all times and places.
The shortcoming in Día de Muertos (and in Coco itself) isn’t that it has too high or too real a conception of the connection of the living with the dead. It’s that it has too low a view. It’s not real enough. The remembrance contained within the Christian story does not depend solely on the passing down of the story (although, without a doubt, not telling the story leads to all sorts of problems (e.g., the Book of Judges). But the remembrance is not only a retelling of the story. It is Jesus actually writing the story on and in us as He brings the story home through His very physical and concrete means of grace.
So I’ll probably watch The Star at some point, but what I’m afraid of is that the sentimentalism that has become attached to the “Christmas story” will actually obscure its physicality and fleshly realism. Perhaps, then, we are in serious need of a story like Coco, whose “higher” paganism might point us more clearly toward the Christian truth than a sentimentalized version of the “real” Biblical story.