We live in a fast-paced world that constantly demands our attention. The regular barrage of headlines makes it hard to remember last week’s breaking news, let alone the memories of a lifetime. In a world that moves so quickly, remembrance is often a liability, especially when our memories hurt. But that’s where Pixar’s newest release, Coco, offers a refreshing critique. It’s a film that reminds us of our need to remember, even the painful parts we’d prefer to forget.
The film tells the story of Miguel, an aspiring young musician and the progeny of a family of shoemakers. Years earlier, his great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife and daughter, Coco, for a career in songwriting, leading Miguel’s family to outlaw music in their home. But that hasn’t stopped Miguel from learning how to play guitar in secret.
In a world that moves so quickly, remembrance is often a liability, especially when our memories hurt.
Coco’s story begins on Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Miguel’s family has devoted an entire room to a shrine where they have perched photos of departed family members, all in preparation for a visitation from their ancestors.
As evening approaches, Miguel sneaks away to perform in the community’s local talent show. In need of an instrument, he heads to the mausoleum of famed musician Ernesto de la Cruz and steals his guitar from its display. To celebrate, he strums a chord in victory, which immediately transports him to the realm of the dead.
When Miguel discovers his relatives, they whisk him away to the Land of the Dead, where they strategize about how to get him back to the living. Their decisions set in motion Miguel’s frenzied search for Ernesto de la Cruz, who he has come to believe is the great-great-grandfather who abandoned Coco and has the power to return him home.
Imagination and Memory
Visually, Coco is one of Pixar’s most stunning accomplishments to date. The Land of the Dead appears in vibrant rippling colors, connected to the living by a luminescent bridge of cempasúchil petals—an orange flower that figures prominently in Mexican celebrations of the Day of the Dead. It’s hard to walk away from the film without an appreciation for its artistic imagination.
Although Coco does not pack the storytelling punch of some of the studio’s previous works, it provokes some thoughtful questions about the significance of memory. Why should we remember? What do we lose by forgetting? And perhaps most importantly, how do we remember the hard things of life without forgetting the beauty in the process? The film addresses each of these questions through the lens of family.
Remembrance and loss are central to the plot. Residents of the Land of the Dead depend on their living families to maintain their memory. If lost, the dead dissolve into ethereal dust and drift away, forgotten forever. Coco portrays forgetfulness as a powerful force both in the present and afterlife.
After her husband left, Miguel’s great-great-grandmother excised the man’s memory from her life. But in doing so, she also deprived her daughter, Coco, of recalling the brief joys she had with her father (as well as the presence of music). It’s an understandable decision. No one wants to live with that kind of pain, but removing all memory creates a pain of its own, one that carries consequences for the future.
In some ways, Miguel’s rebellion is one of those consequences. His decision to chase his dream of music at the expense of his family stems from a misunderstanding of his great-great-grandfather—one made possible by his family’s commitment to forget.
So how do we remember in a way that embraces both the pain and the joy of the past? Coco resolves the tension through the support of family and community. Remembering rightly will be hard, but we do not have to bear that weight alone.
Remembering rightly will be hard, but we do not have to bear that weight alone.
Coco made me think about relationships in my life that have helped me embrace my past in a way that is both true and also instructive. As Christians, we are called to bear one another’s burdens in a similar manner. But family alone cannot temper the pain of the past, especially when family itself is the problem. So what then?
Scripture is filled with calls to remember. God regularly interacts with the Israelites by recounting their history as his people—both the good and the bad—and the New Testament commands us to remember our former lives as fuel for the wonder of our salvation (Eph. 2:11–13). We are called to remember, not because we can do so in our own strength or even that of our community, but because we do so in the strength of the Spirit who lives in us.
Through the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord promised to replace a heart of stone with a heart of flesh in those who would believe (Ezek. 36:26). To have a heart of stone is to exist separated from God, seeing self-sufficiency as the only escape from the troubles of this world. In contrast, a heart of flesh finds joy trusting in God rather than circumstances. That kind of trust enables us to remember rightly the pain and the joys of our past, since we’ve been set free from self-protection and guaranteed a future by the One who holds forever in his hands.
Coco’s conclusions about remembrance are not wrong. They are simply incomplete. We can and should invite others to help us carry whatever brokenness lies in our past. When we do, painful moments—like a husband’s abandonment—can be redeemed and even instructive, especially for future generations.
But beyond human relationships, we need the safety found in Christ to truly remember—both the reality of our former lives and also the beauty of transformation we enjoy by God’s grace.
The fact that joy will always be tinged with sorrow should neither crush us nor cause us to flee from painful memories.
The fact that joy will always be tinged with sorrow should neither crush us nor cause us to flee from painful memories. Christ has redeemed us such that we recognize this life for what it is—temporary. Together, we look toward the day when our sadness will expire.