Pixar Studios probably didn't make Coco for me, exactly. But that's how I saw it.
by Eric Peterson
One of the perks of doing a lot of business travel is that I catch up on a lot of movies and TV shows. Recently, I decided to download Call Me By Your Name onto my iPad, and watch it on a flight from Washington to Dallas, TX. The scenes of two young men falling in love in the Italian countryside were gorgeous, for me … but let’s just say that for the sixty-ish, surely heterosexual, probably a Trump supporter, clearly uncomfortable woman next to me, the view was transformative – but probably not in the way she’d have liked.
So these days, just to get along with my fellow passengers on ever more cramped airplanes, I tend to save anything that might involve scenes of sex, violence, and other “mature” imagery for my hotel rooms. What I watch on the airplane has become decidedly more PG-rated. On the way back from Dallas, one of the free movies offered by the airline was the Disney-Pixar film Coco. Perfect for even the Trumpiest of the Trumpies, I thought. It might be about a movie about a young Mexican boy who crosses a border (between the land of the living and the afterlife), but at least it’s not likely to be too erotic or gory.
First of all, let me just say that nobody warned me. For the last 10 minutes of the film, in my window seat on a sold-out flight, I was openly weeping. I don’t think I elicited any audible sobs, but with my headphones on, I can’t be sure. If you haven’t seen Coco, don’t judge. This little cartoon practically reaches into your tear ducts and turns the faucet on; I’m not sure I could really trust anyone who didn’t cry when watching it.
But after I had recovered myself, it occurred to me – that movie might have been gayer than Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer making out by the river. Not gay in any literal sense, of course – but this movie, aimed at children (but like all Pixar films, made with adults very much in mind), also told a story that I was entirely familiar with. The story centers on Miguel, a young man with dreams of being a musician. The problem is that, four generations earlier, his great-great-grandfather had the same dream. He abandoned his family to pursue a career in show business, and never came back. And so, Miguel’s family doesn’t listen to music. They shut their windows angrily, if music is playing outside. Early in the film, Miguel’s grandmother surprises Miguel talking with a mariachi in the town plaza and accuses the man of corrupting her grandson. Miguel has secretly taught himself to play the guitar in the attic of his family home, but his love of music is for him, a love that dare not speak its name, if you see where I’m headed with this.
The dramatic action of the movie really begins with a traditional coming out scene. Miguel, buoyed by a discovery concerning his great-great-grandfather’s true identity, musters the courage to tell his secret to his family – and is met with misunderstanding and scorn. Suddenly, Miguel’s predicament is clear: he cannot be his authentic self and remain a valued member of his family. He must make his own way.
One hopes that this is a predicament that young queer people experience less and less in this century than the last – and yet we know that it still happens. Conversion therapy centers still operate legally in many states, and even the most progressive parents can be momentarily stunned to learn that their child isn’t who they thought s/he was. Like it or not, this is still a story that a lot of queer people can see themselves in.
The rest of the film, without giving too much away, is about Miguel’s goal to eventually win back his family’s love on his own terms, with no conditions. Being a Disney film for children, I was almost positive he’d eventually succeed. But even when he predictably does so, the moment is so sincere and so vulnerable, it made this 47-year old gay man cry real tears on a crowded airplane, next to a man who looked like he would have been quite comfortable chewing on a piece of straw, the way they did in the Westerns my dad used to make me watch as a kid.
I’ll be traveling again soon, and once again must face the usual dilemma of what to watch while sitting next to a stranger. I suppose I could always just read a book, but I think I’m up to the challenge this time. There’s another cartoon I’ve had my eye on; this one is called Ferdinand, and it’s about a bull who, despite all outward appearances, would rather sit in the meadow and smell flowers than engage in more traditionally masculine activities like bullfighting. I’m sure that one won’t be gay at all.
This essay was also published in Letters from CAMP Rehoboth.