Pixar and the Zohar
If you’ve seen the trailer or any advertisements for “Coco,” you already know that it’s Pixar’s most Mexican film yet. What you don’t see in the trailer is that Coco is also Pixar’s most Jewish film. You probably would not see that by watching the movie, either, but it’s all I saw.
“Coco” tells the story of Miguel Rivera, a Mexican boy who travels on Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) to the Land of the Dead, where he must reconnect with his deceased ancestors to return to the Land of the Living. “Coco” fits neatly in the pantheon of familiar Pixar stories and the film is bursting with wholesome values.
The Jewish idea that aveira goreret aveira — once we step onto a dark path of sin, it can lead to an endless cycle of darkness — is prominent in “Coco.” The filmmakers sprinkle simple truths and lessons throughout: Fame is not correlated with talent or ability; our role models should be the people in our lives who are good, not those who appear to be most successful; we should follow our dreams but not hurt others in the process. Seeing Hollywood teaching good values is worth the price of admission.
On a deeper level, “Coco” is much more. It’s the stuff of primordial storytelling. Many stories dazzle us with mind-bending plot twists and vibrant original characters. “Coco” has neither. The story is not particularly remarkable and the characters are not unique.
“Coco” is a different kind of story — it is a fable. Specifically, it is the kind of fable that has been the bedrock of religious storytelling for thousands of years. “Coco” is a biblical story with new people and modern dilemmas.
Bible stories are not known for their plot twists, but they are brilliant vehicles for life lessons. The purpose of a Bible story is not to entertain — it is to enlighten. “Coco” is certainly entertaining and its agile lesson-teaching impresses. But its true brilliance is the way it enlightens the audience.
Religious stories, loaded with religious meaning and morality, serve a social function, as well. They connect people through ritual and common beliefs. They form a moral fiber that binds religious people to their communities while also answering the “big questions” of life. They connect and enlighten people. This is how religion builds society through storytelling. Without answers to “big questions” and meaning to pull everything together, people don’t build societies.
“Coco” is Hollywood’s most financially successful attempt to tell a universal story with lessons addressing one life’s “biggest” questions: What happens after we die?
“Coco” is a spectacular sermon on the afterlife. Consider this: Pixar spent $200 million to respectfully and faithfully teach the world about Día de los Muertos — authentically. There’s a lot of explaining in the movie as the theology and traditions of Día de los Muertos are doled out in bite-sized pieces.
“Coco” is a spectacular sermon on the afterlife.
The religious moviegoer expects Hollywood to get religion wrong and to subvert whatever it manages to get right. Incredibly, “Coco” does the opposite. It gets Día de los Muertos right. In a nutshell, on Día de los Muertos, the dead visit with the living. Only when we celebrate the dead will their memories live on, enabling them to visit and celebrate along with the living.
This is a powerful teaching. Another movie of biblical proportions, “Interstellar” (2014), also conveyed this idea. Coop, its protagonist, tells his daughter, “We [parents] are the memories of our children.” We find a similar idea in Jewish mysticism. The Zohar says that on days of great celebration, when the living inevitably remember the dead, the souls of the dead leave their heavenly domain and join in the celebration with the living.
This is the kind of “big idea” that traditionally was exclusively religion’s domain. “Coco” is a film doing what religion used to do. It is building culture and meaning. It is building society. Most of all, it is not replacing traditional religious stories with something new, but faithfully retelling the old in a modern way.
Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.