If you haven’t seen Disney/Pixar’s Coco yet, do not read this article.
I mean it.
Some movies are important.
Some movies are an experience.
You deserve to experience this movie without spoilers.
And I’m gonna get deep into spoilers here.
Most successful stories are about a journey and a retrieval. Something is wrong with the world, and our hero must go find and retrieve the cure. About halfway through the story, the hero finds the cure, the thing that’s missing and needed.
But in some of these stories, the cure isn’t what they thought was missing and needed.
Coco is one of those stories.
Something is undeniably wrong with the Rivera family’s world. Something is missing that must be restored. Miguel thinks, and the audience is led to believe, that the missing thing is music. We are used to stories about young people pursuing their dreams at all cost, so because the Rivera family forbids music, and Miguel loves music, we assume, same as Miguel, that the answer to their problems is for Miguel to follow his dreams and re-introduce music into their life.
But music isn’t what’s missing. Something else much more important is missing: Hector.
Hector’s picture is not on the ofrenda. Nobody tells stories about him. Nobody even knows his name, because Imelda refused to speak about him. After Hector left home, Imelda actively erased him from the family – and music, too, because she saw music as the reason he abandoned his family.
Imelda did many admirable things. She single-handedly raised a child and created a career enterprise that would support her family for generations to come. And her actions regarding Hector’s memory are understandable. She thought that forgetting Hector and everything that reminded them of him – removing every part of him from their family, in response to the hurt he caused her and Coco – would protect her family and keep it together.
But those actions tore a hole in the family that would remain unhealed for four more generations. Imelda introduced conditional love to the Rivera family.
The only cure for Miguel’s curse is his family’s blessing, and Imelda is willing to give it – with conditions: “go home, put my photo on the ofrenda, and never play music again.”
Miguel balks at that last condition. But the problem isn’t that Imelda is forbidding music. It’s that there are conditions at all. She holds her love, and Miguel’s life, over his head, only willing to give it to him if he obeys her. It is treated as an equivalent scenario to when she decided that because Hector left the family, he should be forgotten, treated as dead and doomed to oblivion.
The movie does not demand that Imelda forgive Hector for leaving. She doesn’t have to be okay with what he did to her, or put it behind her. She can be angry. She can be hurt.
But she can’t forget him. She can’t let him fade away. The movie makes it very clear – you do not do that to family.
Even if you don’t agree with your family’s decisions, even if you don’t particularly like your family, you don’t remove your love from them. Conditional love, even if the intentions behind it are good, only causes pain in the long run. Family love at its best is unconditional.
When Miguel learns this lesson, when he realizes that saving his great-great-grandfather Hector is more important than pursuing his music dreams, he helps Imelda and the rest of the Rivera family learn it, too. And ultimately, Hector and Imelda give Miguel their blessing – “no conditions” – and he returns home.
And with him, he brings home the cure.
Miguel doesn’t just bring music home from the Land of the Dead. Music alone wouldn’t have fixed anything. It isn’t music that saves Coco’s memory and brings happiness to the Riveras. It’s Hector’s music. It’s the fact that even though Hector hurt his family, he loved them, and that even though he is dead, his presence in their world is still important and can still bring joy.
Miguel both figuratively and literally brings Hector home. He turns the Rivera family into one that loves unconditionally. And they all live happily ever after.