Death in art: Film review – Disney’s “Coco”
In addition to winning at the box office and with critics, Disney and Pixar’s latest offering has won over another demographic – namely those working with the bereaved…
Among the flurry of January and February high-budget film releases jostling for pole position during awards season, there was an offering which piqued our interest via Disney and Pixar. As with many animated movies, this had been a long time in production and, at first glance, may not seem all that child-friendly: “Coco” deals with the reality of death. Capitalising perhaps upon recent popularity around Mexico’s annual Dia de Muertos (commonly referred to as the Day of the Dead), Disney nevertheless addresses the meaty topics of “what happens when I die?” and “how do we remember our loved ones?” with its usual mix of a young child on an adventure, colourful musical sequences, heroes, villains, wisdom from the older generation, and a canine companion.
Without giving too much more away, “Coco” follows young Miguel on his quest to follow his passion for music, which has long been banned by his family due to a mysterious bad experience several generations previously. Miguel’s dedication to his cause sees his quest diverted when he falls victim to a curse, and must find his way home to his family by unravelling a mystery. So far, so Disney.
However, the journey cleverly weaves in several conversations: the audience learns via Miguel’s own discoveries – his temporary visit to the afterlife involves him engaging with a variety of characters, one of whom experiences a second death, permanently departing the afterlife due to there no longer being anyone within the mortal realm who is honouring his memory. Viewers also see Miguel’s relatives explaining the full purpose of the “ofrenda” – a household memorial where pictures of the deceased are placed, and during the night of Dia de Muertos, offerings are left for their spirits who return to visit, such as their favourite foods or other tokens, such as pieces of their jewellery.
Death is viewed as a sad inevitability, rather than a traumatic event, and is presented as being a part of life. The importance of family and remembrance is highlighted clearly, with our ancestors’ ability to enjoy themselves in the afterlife linked to those who remain living continuing to remember them. As a couple of extra additions, the film highlights the importance of clear communication, and how misunderstandings may affect our lives and memories. There is also a nod to empirical evidence that music is strongly tied to memories, particularly for those in later life who may be struggling to remember where they are in relation to the contemporary world.
Although death is a strong theme within the film, it is not presented in a gory manner, or with the heightened trauma of some other Disney material, such as “Bambi”. It does, with this shift away from the stark brutality of the animal kingdom versus man, demonstrate our cultural influences being as much about emotional wellbeing and the benefit of discussing our feelings, as they are about being honest and upfront about the realities of life and death.
The film has ultimately gained wider recognition: at the time of writing, it had already won Best Animated Feature at the 2018 Golden Globes (and was nominated for Best Original Song), and had been awarded Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song at the 2018 Academy Awards.
Our experience with this film showed us there is a lot to consider when communicating about death – did you see the film? If so, what did you think of it?
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