Disney/Pixar’s Coco tells the very Disney story of a Mexican boy named Miguel and his quest to get his family to let him play music. Miguel’s great great grandmother, see, was abandoned by her musician husband back in the ¡Three Amigos! days, at which point the single mother swore off music forever and started a family shoemaking company that persists to this day. As she sees it, music almost tore her family apart, shoes tied them together. Despite this, music is all Miguel really cares about. What to do!
The Dia De Los Muertos twist is that in order to truly get his family’s blessing, Miguel has to go above his abuela’s head (the one who smashed his homemade guitar) and get approval straight from his dead ancestors on the other side, residents of the city of the dead. This involves traveling across the flower bridge; finding the original music hater, Mamá Imelda, and Miguel’s idol, the barrel-chested Golden Age crooner Ernesto De La Cruz (both dead); and trying to get back across before he’s trapped with the dead forever. (Ingenious move, turning the afterlife into a border-crossing issue.) Other perils include being forgotten by the living and suffering a double death, disappearing from the land of the dead and going… well, no one quite knows where the dead go once they’re forgotten.
Dealing as it does with disapproving parents, family secrets, the hunger of memory, and a protagonist’s deep desire to perform showstopping tunes, Coco is basically Pixar at its best, whatever that means anymore. (Mostly I think it means me having to try my best not to cry during a children’s movie.) It’s one of their best since the Disney merger, easily their best since Toy Story 3, and basically a tie for the hardest I’ve had to hold back tears between the ending of Coco, the intro to Up, and the trash furnace in Toy Story 3.
It’s also yet another film of the past few years to highlight the conflict between trying to do right by your family and trying to do right by your art (see also: La La Land, Inside Llewyn Davis). When Miguel asks the famous-even-in-death Ernesto De La Cruz (another fun aspect of Coco‘s world is that you get to take fame with you into the afterlife) if he ever regretted not having a family, De La Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt) answers, “When you’re a musician, the whole world is your family!”
This idea, that when you’re a regular person you belong to your family and that when you’re an artist you belong to the world, sounds a lot like the Disney happy-face version of Darren Aronofsky’s central theme in mother! (and even in Coco it comes to have a dark edge). In mother! (filmed in unnecessarily dark and disconcertingly close shots that made half its audience hate it), childless newlyweds Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence have built a beautiful bucolic life together in vintage farmhouse in an unnamed meadow somewhere.
Lawrence is happy with their isolated existence, but her husband, a famous poet, can’t resist trying to share paradise with anyone who shows up, starting with a crazed fan and his wife, played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. [mother! SPOILERS TO FOLLOW] Their two sons show up, one of them kills the other, Lawrence gets pregnant, Bardem’s writer’s block is cured, and soon the house is overrun with even more crazed fans, turning the film into what can only be described as the first horror-comedy of manners with an unbraced sink MacGuffin. It’s like Aronofsky took the public’s somewhat ambivalent response to Noah (a very silly movie I mostly loved) and thought Okay, so the public doesn’t love it when I explore my earnest questions about The Bible. But what if I posed them in the form of something they already love, like home improvement shows on HGTV?
mother! is basically a Bible story repackaged as an HGTV horror movie — the Biblical flood as demo day. It’s a movie with obvious biblical parallels — Ed Harris’ Cain and Abel-esque sons, Ed Harris’ rib, the son sacrifice/communion scene — and easy symbolism. Lawrence as “mother” Earth, Bardem as God, their son as Jesus, the people as the people. I once wrote of Aronofsky’s Noah, “It’s a movie that posits the profound hypothesis that maybe mankind is forever cursed to destroy God’s creations because of our irrational love of our own progeny.”
mother! is basically the flip side of that, positing the notion that maybe part of what makes God God is His willingness to let everyone share the joy of His offspring, even if in so doing they kill it (people really are the worst). Bardem’s God character is also an artist, leading to endless arguments over whether mother! is really a movie about religion or a movie about art. Which is a bit like arguing over whether Miller Lite tastes great or is less filling. It’s both. Art and religion are inextricably linked, hence why “creator” and “creativity” have the same root word. In mother!, God is the original artist. In a way, it’s a gloriously grandiose riff on the age-old writer’s exhortation to “kill your darlings.”
mother! and Coco both belong to a grand tradition of films and other works that depict artists as tragic (but heroic) loners, wedded to their craft first and human relationships second. Where does that come from? If I had to guess, it comes from the lonely, simultaneously self-pitying but self-regarding artists who create our (semi-autobiographical) art. It may not be that every artist is a tragic loner, but it could just be that feeling like a tragic loner is a frequent inspiration. As another famous writer’s aphorism goes, “happiness writes white.” Which is to say, writers tend to write when they’re sad or have gripes, not when they’re feeling happy and contented.
The beauty of Coco is that it doesn’t enshrine this thought as profound wisdom. “Artists must be sad loners! That’s what makes them some such sad tragic beautiful heroes!” Coco goes a little further. Admittedly, not ending on that note could just be the natural result of it being a Disney/Pixar movie — presumably you’d want the kids to leave singing the songs, not worrying about the songwriter’s sad personal life — but it ends with art as a tool to bring people together, not as a path towards a heroic-tragic life of unending loneliness. It’s perhaps a little contrived, but no more contrived than any heroi-tragic tale of the lonely artist. Like most good uplifting tales, it’s the kind of contrived you want to believe.
But it’s also a little more. Unlike in mother!, where the artist is literally God, Coco draws a hard line between art and fame/commerce (somewhat ironic for a Disney product). It’s the rare film that affirms the power of art even as it suggests that the artist should maybe get over himself.