Remembering Coco and remembering in Coco

It’s been two years since Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina’s Coco hit theatres in late 2017. The film, Pixar’s sole non-sequel release in the past four years, is as dazzling as ever: lights and colors have only looked better in 2019’s Toy Story 4, and textures are stunningly realized (notice the rope and paper fibers in the opening sequence or Mama Coco’s beautifully-pocked skin). Looking back on Coco feels right—after all, remembering is the film’s main theme, and “Remember Me” its, well, main theme. In my past review, I wrote that the film demands that we remember those who have gone before us in an understated but deeply moving manner. In doing so, Coco became hard to forget. It’s perhaps Pixar’s best film since Toy Story 3. In a time in which original movies—especially animated—are few and far between, Coco is a breath of fresh air, even after two years.

Coco, again, is ostensibly about memory: the film hinges on the Miguel and his family’s remembrance of their estranged patriarch Hector. Memory, however, is as fickle as it is immaterial. Mama Coco can’t even recall Miguel’s name, let alone the face of her beloved papa. Coco is aware of this: remembering is an imprecise practice and memory itself is often flawed. Yet memories in Coco are magically visualized—it’s a film, after all—and Coco makes memory visible and concrete through its construction of images.

This process is apparent in Coco’s first scene. In a title sequence, Miguel recounts his family’s tempestuous history. As he speaks, his words are visualized via colorful papel picado: he invokes his mama Imelda, and we see her, instantly, as a paper cutout. Hector’s departure and Imelda’s shoemaking career is thus inscribed onto an image: a history made visual through 2D representation. Images such as these are everywhere in Coco. See every ofrenda—each altar holds dozens of photos depicting deceased relatives.

Indeed, these photos have a real significance. They are not just meaningless reminders of the dead; rather, they are intrinsically tied to those they signify. When Miguel meets his (deceased) family for the first time, each photo on the Rivera ofrenda is superimposed on each relative’s face with a fast cut. It’s a clever way to show the audience who’s who among the deceased Riveras, but it also implies something far greater: these photos are equivalent to those depicted therein. Such equivalency is stressed when Miguel meets Hector. Hector begs Miguel to place his own photo on some ofrenda—if Miguel doesn’t, Hector will never be allowed to visit the land of the living again. Photos, in a sense, are gatekeepers. Without a photo in the land of the living, Hector can’t leave the land of the dead (and will die his ‘final death’ shortly). In other words, without visual representation of memory, memory is lost. Images, then, have real importance: they are intrinsically tied to those they represent and are vital in the memory making and promulgation process.

However, images, like the memories they stand in for, are imperfect. Take de la Cruz. As a celebrity, he’s obsessed with his image. Indeed, the de la Cruz image permeates Coco: Miguel watches his films, tourists marvel at his statue, his likeness can be found on posters and screens even in the land of the dead. The modern idea of the celebrity revolves around the image-making process. Any celebrity creates and curates their own image, whether that be through interviews, posters, meets and greets, blogs, or whatever else. De la Cruz is no exception: he candidly admits that his image is everything.

The celebrity image, like all images, is a construct, and therefore artificial. Coco readily realizes this. The de la Cruz represented by earthly images is revered by Miguel—but this image is destroyed when Miguel encounters de la Cruz in the flesh. This isn’t to say that images are any less potent, for de la Cruz, master of his own image, is still revered and beloved by the living. He show the literal fruits of his flawless image when he takes Miguel through the gifts he’s received on Dia de Muertos. Rather, we are to realize that images are constructions and can therefore be flawed. De la Cruz’s image does not permit anyone to envision him other than a hero, and yet he is a murderer—a flawed constructed image, and a flawed collective memory. Indeed, a new image must be formulated for de la Cruz to reconcile with his villainy. In the final showdown between Miguel, Hector, and Imelda and de la Cruz, de la Cruz admits his wrongdoings while being filmed—thus, Coco replaces the heroic and constructed de la Cruz films from earlier with a more appropriate and condemning film broadcasted to a stadium via screens. When de la Cruz returns to the stage moments after, crowds throw rotten tomatoes at him, thus staining his white outfit and shattering his pure celebrity image (the red of the tomatoes even recalls the metaphorical blood on his hands).

Images in Coco, then, are constructed substitutes for those they represent, heavily influencing the memory-making process. While at times these images are accurate and appropriate representations (the Rivera family), at other times, images are abused and memory is therefore hijacked (de la Cruz). What, then, should we make of Hector? After all, though he is kind and loving at heart, Hector was spurned from his family, and his image was literally destroyed. Hector’s good nature is revealed to the audience via movie-like flashbacks. Indeed, each flashback is shot in sepia tone, and Hector and Coco’s goodbye looks as if it were shot on a soundstage. Hector’s memories are quasi-movies—though never shown on screens within the world of Coco, these images nevertheless directly recall and contradict de la Cruz’s films.

All the same, Hector still relies on the physical image: he cannot revisit his family unless his image is on an ofrenda. The image, though potentially flawed, is still absolutely vital. Once Hector’s image is returned to the family photo, Hector himself is allowed to rejoin the family and does so in the final sequence. This sequence is vital: at long last, the Riveras are united, and the camera sweeps over the family, living and dead, and the images that represent them all at once. The screen goes dark, and “Remember Me” plays over the credits.

What’s our take-away? Yes, memory is constructed through images, and, yes, images, as constructions, are imperfect and may be flawed. Nevertheless, images are vital to the memory-making process. To remember those who have passed on, Coco advises us, we must create and sustain their image. It may be imperfect, but it’s the best we can do. We should remember that.