The Motif in Pixar’s Coco
By Matthew Jarrett
There are certain phrases in stories that have an impact on us. They sometimes bring back fond memories with a character, or make us cry from loss or joy, or sometimes both. The reason why these phrases, or even recurring actions, mean so much to us is that we have seen them repeatedly in multiple contexts. To put it simply, these repeated ideas are motifs, which can be seen everywhere throughout art and storytelling. Take Hamilton’s “Wait for it,” “My shot,” and “Satisfied”, or even the repetition of “I can do this all day” in the Captain America films. What these phrases do is provide call backs, unifying threads throughout a story, and aid in expressing the theme. In Disney and Pixar’s 2017 film Coco, we see the motif merge seamlessly with the movie’s themes of remembering the past. By integrating the central motifs of “Remember Me” and “Seize your moment,” and this theme, Coco’s writers created an emotionally resonant and enjoyable story. So how did they integrate the two?
On the surface it seems as if the phrase “Remember Me” would go directly with the film’s central themes. And it does. This motif, however, works to reveal the story’s themes slowly and deliberately. Coco’s central theme is that of memory and remembering our family’s past as it was, and not as we might think. This theme can be seen everywhere throughout the film, such as with Mama Coco’s dementia, how the Rivera family hates music due to Mama Coco’s father having left them, and the fact that the story takes place on Día de los Muertos. But all the while we have these motifs of “Remember Me” and “Seize your moment” showing up in key scenes throughout the story, revealing more about both themselves and the characters, thus bringing the story’s themes and emotional center into sharper focus each time we hear the phrases.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, and don’t care about spoilers, “Remember Me” is a famous song, within the world of the story, written by renowned singer Ernesto de la Cruz. It became his most beloved song and was even carved on his tomb. Along with this, “Seize your moment” was a famous saying of the singer and was also carved on his memorial statue. De la Cruz ended up dying in the middle of his career when a bell fell on him during an over-the-top performance of “Remember Me.” And it is this performance that seemed to fully negate the song’s meaning.
On the other hand, the song in and of itself was written by Héctor Rivera as a parting gift to his daughter, who happens to be Mama Coco, and Miguel’s great-great grandfather. Plot twist! We discover this by the film’s end when Miguel and Héctor are trapped in a cave. The difference between when Héctor sings “Remember Me” here versus when we first encounter the song is that it is sung from a place of deep longing instead of de la Cruz’s hoopla of a rendition. The reason for this shift in the song’s tone comes from the fact that we’ve heard it, or seen the title, roughly six or seven times by this point allowing the audience to see the motif throughout several different contexts.
Earlier I mentioned that the further along in the film the viewer is, the song’s true meaning comes into clearer focus. This plays into the subtle tone shifts the song takes throughout the film. Each time we hear it, a little more context is added to the song’s true nature. An example would be in our second interaction with Héctor, where we see a poster of “Remember Me” juxtaposed with the character and having him say “I know de la Cruz.” This helps us to associate Héctor with the motif, giving us the idea that we are to connect him with the song. Again this is seen when Héctor’s backstory is revealed as him having been murdered. The camera closes in on Héctor’s songbook, showing us “Remember Me”, thus indicating it was written by him. Within the next five minutes we are then directly told that Héctor wrote the song for his daughter, to help her feel connected to him while he toured.
This acts in contrast to de la Cruz’s renditions of the song and is given further credence once we discover his true motivations. When the truth comes out about de la Cruz’s nature, we are told that his reputation is very important to him, which makes sense that if he’s forgotten then he’ll fade away and lose the life he has built for himself, even in death. Thus motivating his attempted murder of Miguel. In effect, de la Cruz has taken “Remember Me” out of its original context and pushed it into one of selfishness and greed. Without the motif’s prevalence we wouldn’t have this undertone. The motif showing itself repeatedly allows us to go deeper into its true meaning, while seeing de la Cruz’s corruption of the song. This combined with the movie’s other motif of “Seize your moment” reveals de la Cruz’s character by showing what each of the phrases mean.
I want to take a minute to discuss this second motif. “Seize your moment” is de la Cruz’s version of “Carpi Diem”, albeit a darker version of the saying. Nevertheless, he uses it to justify his objectively evil actions, with the murder and attempts of murder and all. We’re introduced to this saying early on in the film when we first hear about de la Cruz, and even when Miguel is watching a series of de la Cruz tapes he owns. It becomes clear that de la Cruz is more than willing to do whatever it takes to “seize his moment”. Even at the film’s climax he says this before throwing Miguel off the stadium walls, showing he has taken the statement and misused it to justify anything to keep himself alive.
Once we see these two motifs come together, the film’s themes begin to grow clearer. Coco deals with themes of remembering the past in its true and original context, and if this is not done, then we get the injustice of a murderer gaining all the glory, while his victim fades out of memory. The motifs are used to create a thread throughout the film, unifying all its parts together to bring out the themes in an emotional symphony. They are used to point to the story’s heart, and without their use I don’t think the film would have been as emotionally resonant as it is.
We see the motifs moving forward shifting and evolving from a false memory into their true form. One corrupt to heartfelt, and the other heartfelt to corrupt. It is taking these two and putting them in tension like this that adds to their effect. The tension creates emphasis and allows the writers to explore the evolution of the motifs throughout the story. Though the technique is simple, it creates a powerfully emotional and thematic effect.
These two effects are inextricably linked together as the emotions are highest when the film’s themes are at their deepest. While there are some intense emotional moments in Coco’s first act, I’m talking about that scene where Abuelita freaks out over Miguel having a guitar , the motifs of “Remember Me” and “Seize your moment” are not being invoked. While this moment is defiantly emotionally impactful, it serves more as a catalyst for Miguel than an exploration of theme. However, the aforementioned Well and Stadium scenes are both emotionally intense and thematic moments as we see the motifs invoked in their truest forms. When Héctor sings “Remember Me” as he did to Coco, we see the heartache the song is meant to invoke; not meant to be a popular tune to make money, but a powerful connective bond between father and daughter. The same can be said for “Seize you moment” as de la Cruz quotes by saying he’s the only one who is truly willing to “Seize my moment” before throwing Miguel off the stadium, thus showing how he has taken this inspirational statement and twisted it to be used for his own selfish ambitions.
What makes these motifs so powerful is their believability in these instances. All throughout Coco we have seen these motifs crop up every-so-often, which makes us used to them and provides familiarity and connection with them, but as the motifs are repeated and we see the deeper meanings of each statement, we look at their true meanings saying that they make sense. A part of this has to do with the story’s set-up, which was the topic of a previous essay. But we look at Héctor’s and de la Cruz’s, even the whole Rivera family’s actions, and with the motifs they make sense. It makes perfect sense that the Rivera’s would produce a song like “Remember Me”, and despite all the past hurt would come together to protect one of their own, even changing their minds in how they give Miguel his family blessing to send him back to the Land of the Living. It also makes sense that de la Cruz would act selfishly as he was willing to do anything to become famous, even killing his best friend and stealing his songs.
Ultimately, Coco’s use of motifs provides the film with an extreme amount of unity and thematic significance. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to experience this movie as the fun and emotional roller coaster that it is, and it would lose much of its thematic weight. I would even argue that it would be less believable as a story without them. Really motifs are used as one of the chief writing devices in this story, giving extra depth and life to its characters, and helping us to always remember those who came before us.