In one of the early scenes in Coco—Pixar’s latest masterpiece that blends Mexican folklore, family dynamics and the dreams of an aspiring artist—12-year-old protagonist Miguel has crossed into the “other side,” the “Land of the Dead,” through a bridge of fiery marigold petals facing towards a luminescent Mexican ghost town. While there he’s followed by a winged jaguar, and the ghost of his great-great-grandmother, and that’s just one example of how Pixar’s Coco isn’t just visually spectacular, but also aims to centre and accurately represent a new frontier of racially diverse Disney characters.
With the hashtag #HollywoodSoWhite trending in recent years, it’s no surprise that in 2014 a study conducted by Columbia University found that only 1.4% of films featured Latinx actors in lead roles. But the success of Coco, which has grossed nearly $400 million internationally since its release, debunks the myth that animated films that challenge entrenched norms are a box office gamble. It firmly highlights that there’s room for diverse narratives to not only exist but flourish.
Directed by Lee Unkrich (who also co-directed Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo), Coco focuses on Miguel, the son of a shoemaker in Mexico who has a passion for music despite the fact that it’s strictly forbidden by his relatives. The story opens on Dìa de Muertos (or The Day of the Dead), a Mexican holiday that invites the presence of deceased souls to mingle with the living through altars laden with food, offerings and decorations.
The film does more than tackle Miguel’s story from a well-researched, informed vantage point —it derives much of its success from centering representation on all levels.
Prior to work being started on the film, cultural consultants were hired and Coco’s core creative team travelled to Mexico several times, visiting plazas, markets, and museums. But as Unkrich told Vanity Fair, the influence that was the most impactful was visiting Mexican families on Dìa de Muertos: “a lot of the details from those visits ended up being a part of Coco.” This attention to detail is evident in the film’s careful representation of Mexican traditions which don’t rely on inaccurate historical depictions or stereotypes, an approach to storytelling that Disney has relied on in the past.
But the film does more than tackle Miguel’s story from a well-researched, informed vantage point—it derives much of its success from centring representation on all levels. Starring former Legally Blonde actress Alanna Ubach, Gael Garcìa Bernal of Amazon’s Mozart In the Jungle, Jane the Virgin’s Jaime Camil and newcomer Anthony Gonzalez who voicing Miguel, the film boasts a majority Latinx cast. The film not only features Latinx characters, but draws on Latin American artistic, literary and musical traditions. Magical realism—a Latin American literary tradition that incorporates fantastical elements into realistic settings—informs much of the film’s visual narrative. Part of the film’s visual appeal is due to the neon-glowing alebrijes (spirit creatures from Oaxaca indigenous culture) like Pepita, a horned jaguar with wings and Dante, Miguel’s companion, a Mexican Xolo dog who later transforms into a winged spirit creature.
In a recent interview, Coco music consultant Camilo Lara and composer Germaine Franco told NPR that their goal was to incorporate orchestral scores reminiscent of Mexican films from the 1930s and 1940s, especially with music being such a central part of the plot. One of the film’s central characters is Ernesto de la Cruz, a famous musician who is influenced by real-life Latino music legends Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete. This contributes to a rich guitarrón Mariachi influence and a musical soundscape textured with both traditional and contemporary elements.
At a time where racial tensions threaten to tear us apart, it’s interesting that a film funded by one of America’s biggest corporate giants focuses so strongly on themes of home and belonging. The message of Coco is simple: home is not defined by borders or place, it’s where your family and the people who love you are.