Coco and the Hero’s Journey
I just saw Pixar’s Coco and thought it was full of great storytelling. I wanted to apply Dan Harmon’s analysis of the Hero’s Journey to it to see if it fit. Full spoilers ahead for the movie, so if you care about that, only read if you’ve seen it.
FULL MOVIE SPOILERS AHEAD
We’ll be using the Hero’s Journey breakdown found on Harmon’s Channel 101 site. Let’s take a look!
1. You — Establish a protagonist. We get this right away in Coco, as Miguel performs the opening narration and tells us a story about his family history. Immediately afterward, we open on a beautifully rendered Mexican village. All indications visually are that this is a kind of paradise, from the lush colors and lighting to the obvious inter-generational cohesion, to the looks of love that everyone around has for their circumstances and each other.
2. Need — Something ain’t quite right. This is also shown right away. Despite the wonderful aspects of life in the town, things aren’t perfect. Miguel’s grandmother is a loving though misguided tyrant, his great-grandmother Coco is sadly in the last stages of dementia, and worst of all his entire family is “cursed” because his great-great-grandfather left his wife and his daughter Coco to pursue a career in music and never returned. The consequence is that music is banned in their family. Where does the “need” kick in? Miguel wants to be a musician. He needs to be a musician, to the point where he has made his own guitar and learned to play it with the skill of a virtuoso by mimicking videos of his musical idol De La Cruz — considered the greatest songwriter to ever live.
3. Go — Crossing the threshold. Animation allows you to tell a story quite literally. After breaking ranks with his family, Miguel crosses a literal the threshold into the land of the dead. It’s Dia de los Muertos, and he “steals” from the dead in the form of taking the long-dead De La Cruz’s guitar from its mausoleum to participate in a music contest. Miguel can now see the dead, and he follows them, along with his street dog, over a bridge into the actual land of the dead. As he steps onto the bridge, they pass through a literally depicted threshold — a kind of energy barrier. In most stories, this happens metaphorically, but because we’re in the land of fantasy and animation, it can be shown right on the screen.
4. Search — The road of trials. The next entire section of the movie is classic “search.” We get a time limit (Miguel must return to the land of the living before sunrise or he is trapped forever), and a goal (he must obtain his dead family’s blessing in order to return). However, Miguel is unwilling to accept the blessing from the traditional members of his family, because they place a condition on it — he must give up music forever. And so, the search is on. Miguel, who is convinced that De La Cruz (now a huge celebrity in the afterlife) is his missing great-great-grandfather, seeks for a way to get an audience with the star in order to obtain his blessing without conditions. A lot happens in this stage, and there is a ton of great character work and storytelling within “Search” in this movie. Miguel befriends a dead man named Hector who has his own problems, he has his first public performance, and meets some awesome characters (Frida Khalo!).
Eventually though, the search leads him to the fact that De La Cruz is actually a terrible person who murdered his musical partner back on Earth and stole all of his songs in order to become famous. There will be no blessing. “Search” ends with De La Cruz having Miguel and Hector thrown into a giant well/cavern.
5. Find — Meeting with the Goddess. And that’s just perfect. “Find” puts you at the lowest possible point, and what is more low than a literal cave in the floor of the underworld? That’s about as low as it gets. In Harmon’s Hero’s Journey analysis, this is where you twist, and Coco twists. Miguel discovers inside the cave that the goofy, desperate, helpful Hector (who was murdered by De La Cruz) is his own great-great-grandfather. Instantly, the story of his family has changed. He never abandoned them! He was on his way back but was murdered! And how do we know that everything has changed with this twist? Hector’s wife, who up until this point in the story has been a type of antagonist — attempting to send Miguel back with zero music — shows up with her giant flying alibrije to rescue them from the cave and help to set in motion the rest of the story. She is the matriarch of the family, and shows up in full power here. She’s our Goddess.
6. Take — Meet your maker. This one is a little tricky. Once they are free from the cave, the movie turns into a bit of an action-comedy with the goal being to retrieve Hector’s picture from De La Cruz so Miguel can return it to the world of the living and prevent him from being forgotten and disappearing altogether. It turns out that in the land of the dead, when the last person who remembered you in life forgets you, you die the “final death.” Because Coco who is succumbing to dementia is forgetting him, he is almost gone. If they can get the picture back with Miguel, Hector’s ghost has a few minutes to cross over and see her again before he goes. They craft a plan, and action ensues. This definitely bleeds into step 7 though (“Return”), as De La Cruz is actively trying to prevent Miguel from returning to the land of the living.
And this is where I’m going to throw a curve ball to make it fit. There is a revelation during this phase that fits “meet your maker.” It is revealed that Miguel’s street dog, Dante, is actually an alibrije — a spirit guide! All along, it has been leading Miguel on this journey, nudging him in the right direction. Dante is responsible for all of the action we’ve seen so far. He’s the Maker, and I couldn’t be happier about it. This goofball character has been subtly driving the action all along!
7. Return — Bringing it home. Once De La Cruz is defeated, Miguel receives an unconditional blessing from his family, and he is returned to the land of the living. Hector’s picture was destroyed during “Take” though, so it appears that Hector is doomed to not only disappear forever, but also to not see Coco before he goes. I guess you can’t have everything. Miguel leaves the mausoleum, literally returning to his home, and it turns out that his living family has been searching for him for the entire night.
8. Change — Master of both worlds. Here we get the payoff for the entire journey, and are once again reminded how masterfully Pixar can tell a story. Miguel finds Coco, who is now completely unresponsive and despite the protestations of his grandmother, plays and sings the song for her (De La Cruz’s greatest hit!) that it turns out was a simple lullaby/goodbye song written by a father for his daughter. The music triggers a part of her brain that was long dormant, and Coco is able to meaningfully converse with her family for the first time in ages. It’s obvious that she is not cured, but that the music helps her memory. We can assume that Hector gets some extra time in the land of the dead! Yay! Also, it’s now obvious that music is valuable to this family, and we know that no one will be stopping Miguel from becoming a musician. Finally, Coco’s memory is jogged enough that she pulls out a book of the letters her father (Hector) used to write to her. It contains the lyrics of De La Cruz’s greatest hits, written as poems for Coco years before De La Cruz claimed to have written them.
We flash forward one year, and see the true power of Miguel’s journey. Because the world now knows that Hector wrote the songs they all love, he is remembered strongly and apparently has an unlimited tenure in the afterlife. Coco has died, and we see her, Hector and his wife’s reunion in the land of the dead. Together, they prepare to make the journey to the land of living for Dia de los Muertos. Finally, we are treated to a beautiful closing number. Miguel sings a gorgeous song about family, while we see the entire Rivera family, living and dead, sharing a meal, dancing and playing music in their long-time home. He demonstrates for us definitively that he is the master of both worlds, able to bring them together in harmony. The entire aisle in the theater was basically bawling at this point.
It’s a wonderful payoff, and a testament to the effectiveness with which Pixar has executed this storytelling framework.
As I keep telling young writers — you don’t need an original plot or some crazy hook. You need a solid story, well told. It’s not only okay to follow a framework or a formula — it can be helpful. Stick with what works, and write it well.