Warning: spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen Coco then why are you reading this blog post?
Note: This blog post discusses the belief system in the movie Coco. This is not a discussion or criticism of the actual Día de Muertos.
Remember when Pixar and Disney released Coco, that heart warming movie about honoring and remembering your family?
Remember how awesome it looked on screen with its amazing use of color? Remember how you cheered when Miguel realized that Hector was his great-great grandfather all along? And how you cried a little when Coco finally remembered Hector?
Remember how you sat at the back of the movie theater and realized that buried underneath this lovely family movie was a premise so disturbing it turned Coco into a horror story?
No? Oh wait, that was me.
My over analytical brain screamed at me that Pixar had inadvertently portrayed the Land of the Dead as a purgatory (at best). It definitely wasn’t a version of heaven.
Why? Because although the premise of the Land of the Dead, as setup by Pixar, seems straightforward and innocuous, it harbors some alarming implications.
First off, the Land of the Dead seems to use the following rules.
- When you die, you go to the Land of the Dead.
- To remain in the Land of the Dead you need to be remembered by someone in the Land of the Living. The Pixar setup specifically moves away from the concept of family remembering you, to being remembered by anyone at all (for example, fans).
- If no one remembers you, you ‘die’ a second time by disappearing.
- The longer you continue to be remembered in the Land of the Living, the better off your ‘lifestyle’ in the Land of the Dead. Ernesto de la Cruz, who continues to be worshiped as a musical legend, seems to be having a great time despite being dead.
In the movie we discover that the character of Ernesto stole all of his songs from another man. Hector was once Ernesto’s partner in a singing duo. When Hector tried to leave, Ernesto decided to murder Hector and steal his guitar and songs. As this is a Pixar movie, Ernesto’s skulduggery is revealed, and Hector is restored to his rightful place as the songs’ creator. He is now remembered, and can continue to ‘live’ in the Land of the Dead. Ernesto, presumably, slinks off into oblivion to eventually disappear.
Here’s the problem… There appears to be no method or mechanism in the Land of the Dead to determine if you should be admitted or not. Osiris isn’t there weighing up the quality of souls before they enter nor is St. Peter, or any other type of eternal being. Ernesto is a straight out murderer and thief and he gets to keep living the sweet life even after he’s dead. Nothing happens to him. He would have continued having his excellent afterlife of fame and fortune if not for Miguel (that pesky kid). As long as Ernesto was remembered and revered, nothing happened to him.
At this stage, The Land of the Dead could be seen as a type of purgatory where everyone hangs out until they get sorted into other planes of existence. But there’s no sign of that ever happening in the movie. Your continued existence in the Land of the Dead is based on a popularity contest.
The more you’re remembered, the longer you stay, the better your lifestyle. That’s why Ernesto is having such a good time. He was famous down on Earth and his fame has carried over into the Land of the Dead. He only loses his place in the pecking order when Miguel (a living person) discovers the truth and remedies the situation.
Meanwhile, Hector is having an awful afterlife. Coco is the only living person who remembers Hector and her memory is fading. Hector is in dire straits and down on his luck. Hector may have been a dedicated family man in the Land of the Living, as well as a talented singer/songwriter, but the Land of the Dead doesn’t know and doesn’t care.
The Land of the Dead is as blind and unknowing as the Land of the Living. Whatever heinous acts someone committed in secret remains undiscovered even after they’re dead.
And then the implications for this version of the Land of the Dead get worse. As discussed, the rule seems to be that your lifestyle in the Land of the Living gets translated into the Land of the Dead. The more popular you were while alive, the more likely you’ll remain ‘alive’ in the Land of the Dead, as long as someone remembers you. The richer you were when alive, the better your accommodation when dead. There’s one very big problem with this rule–there are plenty of people who have been truly horrendous and are remembered fondly by their followers. There are plenty of very rich people in the Land of the Living who will be remembered long after they’re dead, even though they were terrible human beings.
Somewhere in Pixar’s version of the Land of the Dead, Hitler along with assorted serial killers and despots, is having a terrific time. And neither he, nor any of his evil friends are in any danger of disappearing any time soon.
And that is why Coco is a goddamned horror story.