Of the twelve or so moments that make me tear up in Coco, there’s one in particular that stands out: the moment when Miguel crashes into the ghostly skeleton of his Papa Julio.
I’m being serious.
The moment is played for laughs, but Papa Julio’s reaction has always really hit me. He’s not angry, he simply cries, “Miguel?” No introduction necessary, this guy knows he has just met his great-grandson. Right off, Miguel’s ancestors immediately know who he is. And what’s more, they’re so quick to smother him in love. The way Tia Rosita instantly wraps herself around Miguel, you’d think she’d been over for Thanksgiving dinner every year. To say that they had a relationship with Miguel is a little titled since, up until the events of the film, Miguel did not interact with his departed family. Just the same, Miguel’s family knew him. They watched him grow up. They cared for him. They knew him.
Notably, Hector and Miguel do not get to share this first meeting. This follows because a significant plot point is that Hector has been stuck in the land of the dead for his entire life (death?). He has not been able to visit Miguel with the rest of his family on Dia de Los Muertos. But as a consequence of this, Miguel and Hector get to learn about each other and build a relationship on equal footing. As a result, the revelation that their emotional connection is fortified by the binds of family carries emotional weight.
It’s nothing novel for a film, particularly a children’s film, to say that “family is important.” What gives Coco’s portrait of family so much significance is the way it transposes meaningful connections onto family members we have never met, yet whose stories are ingrained in our own. Miguel’s connection reaches not just to the people in his household, but also to Hector. Hector never got to know Miguel in life, but his musical spirit is so integral to who Miguel is. Hector is a part of Miguel, and the relationship Miguel gets to have with Hector while in the Land of the Dead is emblematic of the connection Miguel always had with his great-great-grandfather.
This idea of family bonds transcending the grave has echoes of a religious doctrine. What is The Land of the Dead but a slight variation of Heaven? Different branches of Christianity will place different emphases on exactly how family functions on a celestial timetable, but most denominations will endorse some view of being connected to family on the other side.
On a more personal note …
A few months after this movie premiered, my own dad would pass away suddenly. Months after, I was visiting the home my dad grew up in for the first time since his accident. The house has a hall full of family photographs spanning from maybe five years ago all the way to the early days of my dad’s childhood.
One photograph has my dad with my mother and my older sisters (I was not yet part of the picture) alongside my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and oldest cousins. I noted that we had a similar picture at my mother’s house now with my adult siblings, including my sister who was at the time pregnant with her first kid. It occurred to me that in just a few years, the family picture hanging in my mother’s living room would look very similar to the ones hanging on the wall. In seeing what I’d had growing up with my extended family, I felt like I was viewing a future echo for what lied in store.
I had passed through this hall many times growing up, but this movie and my new family setup gave me a whole new context for what it meant to have an everlasting family. What a comfort it was to realize, as Coco so beautifully illustrates, that neither a family’s story nor a family’s love is interrupted or limited by death. My dad would be a part of my story, as would countless others who came before him, even across death and time.