Viva Mexico! Last weekend, Disney Pixar’s animated film “Coco” soared to the top of the box office, pulling in an estimated $71 million over the five-day holiday period. The film, which tells the story of a young Mexican boy’s adventures on Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, connected with US audiences just as it did in Mexico, where it opened in October and has already become the country’s top-grossing film of all time.
With its stunning animation and heartwarming message, “Coco” is not unlike other Pixar hits such as “Toy Story” and “Up.” What sets “Coco” apart is that it’s an authentic, inclusive depiction of Mexican art, music, and culture. The cast is nearly entirely Latino. At a time when Latinos continue to be scarce on the big screen — or portrayed as tired, negative stereotypes — “Coco” is a joyous homage to Mexican traditions. That in itself is cause for celebration.
But beyond that, in its sly, entertaining way, “Coco” is a rebuke to those — like President Donald Trump — who may see Mexico and Mexicans as a problem. And the movie’s success proves that, contrary to attempts from the right to demonize American Latinos, a vast mainstream of Americans of all kinds are quite comfortable with Latino characters being represented in mainstream entertainment.
The box office numbers reflect that welcome — and the President should get on board.
“Coco” tells the story of Miguel Rivera, a 12-year-old who is determined to pursue his musical ambitions despite the disapproval of his family. Through a metaphysical twist of fate, he winds up in the land of the dead on the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, and needs to obtain the blessing of his ancestors in order to get back to the land of the living.
While many Americans may confuse Dia de los Muertos with Halloween, these are two very different holidays. Dia de Los Muertos Is in November, and is not intended to be spooky or scary. Those who celebrate this holiday believe that the souls of deceased children come back to visit their families on November 1, followed by the souls of other deceased relatives on November 2.
Mexican families often create altars with photos and small gifts to make these souls from the afterlife feel at home among the living.
Latinos audiences will recognize many of these rituals depicted in “Coco,” like the Rivera family’s ofrenda (offering) and the pan dulce (sweet bread) laid out as welcoming gifts to their ancestors. The genius of “Coco” is that it’s rich with such culturally appropriate touches, from a cameo by the famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo to its depiction of spirit animals known as alebrijes, to a character nicknamed Chicharron (fried pork).
Miguel’s relatives refer to him as “mi’jo,” shorthand for mi hijo, my son, a common form of endearment in Hispanic families. Yet the movie’s themes are universal — following your dreams, the importance of family, and the human yearning to be remembered. “Coco” will likely inspire many audience members to want to know more about Dia de los Muertos, which is certainly a good thing.
One revelation of the film for Latino Americans is that when Hollywood filmmakers approach a multicultural project thoughtfully, they are indeed capable of getting it right. The filmmaker Lee Unkrich relied on Latino consultants to help him craft a respectful narrative, and producers made several trips to Mexico for research.
The creative team included Latinos, like co-director and screenwriter Adrian Molina, and musician Camilo Lara. Though these efforts may have made the film’s development more expensive and complicated, the result is a bilingual, bicultural movie that is accessible to everyone — and, refreshingly, puts its Mexican characters center stage.
There are no gringos, cowboys, or conquerors. No one has immigration issues, unless you count the souls passing over the bridge between the lands of the living and the land of the dead. The Mexican characters are simply people, defined by their humanity instead of their ethnicity. This is a powerful message in a film whose audience no doubt includes many Latino families with young children. Movies like “Coco,” in fact, may inspire young Latinos interested in careers in film and animation.
Not everything connecting with the making of “Coco” went smoothly. Early in the development process, Disney tried to trademark “Dia de los Muertos,” presumably for merchandising efforts, then backed off amid a storm of criticism. And the day before the film rolled out for the Thanksgiving weekend in the US, the chief creative officer of Walt Disney Pixar John Lasseter announced he was taking a leave of absence amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Still, these real-life events should not overshadow the impact and significance of “Coco.”
Consider that Latinos are not used to seeing themselves depicted in mainstream movies at all. A study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism found that in 2015, only 5.3% of characters in 800 movies examined were Latino — despite the fact that Latinos are avid moviegoers. What’s more, when Latinos are represented onscreen, too often they are shown playing gang members, drug dealers, or maids.
A film like “Coco” gives the lie to such characterizations that are too often embraced by the President, who has called Mexicans criminals and “rapists,” who has disparaged Mexican-Americans, and who wants to wall off our neighbor to the south. The era of Trump makes the success of “Coco” all the more powerful.
The filmmakers at Disney Pixar deserve enormous credit for presenting Latino culture in a positive light — just as it would and should for the culture of any group in this nation of immigrants. “Coco” is an enchanting valentine to Mexico, and to the family ties that bind us all.