Several years ago, Disney sparked a bit of controversy when they attempted to trademark “Dia de los Muertos.” Although they weren’t trying to trademark the holiday itself – the filing was for the title and related merchandise for an animated film – the move was seen as an attempt to cash in on a holiday that is sacred to many. After a backlash from the Latino community, Disney/Pixar withdrew its trademark attempt and eventually hired one of its vocal critics, cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, as a consultant.
“My first reaction was ‘Wow. Is this for real? Should I do this? It’s pretty risky. Are they going to ask me to just rubber stamp stuff, or are they going to listen to what I have to say, cuz, you know, I have strong opinions,'” says Alcaraz. “My second reaction was, ‘PIXAR WANTS TO TALK TO ME.’ A combination of joy and terror.”
Fast forward to today, and Disney/Pixar is just a little over a month away from the release of “Coco,” a Dia de los Muertos-themed film that appears to honor and respect the holiday as it is celebrated in Mexico.
After viewing the first 30 minutes, it’s clear Disney/Pixar worked hard to create a film that authentically captures the feel of Dia de los Muertos.
Co-director Lee Unkrich hopes the film resonates with those who celebrate Dia de los Muertos.
“We hope that our audience in those communities feel like we got it right,” he says. “That we spent the time to get the details right. That we dove deep and really did our best to come to understand the traditions and the intricacies of the holiday, and communicate it in a way that spoke to those communities but was also accessible to everyone in the world.”
As important as telling a story that resonates with both Latino and non-Latino audiences is to co-director Adrian Molina, he also understands the importance of representation for Latinos.
“One really beautiful thing about this film, in particular, is to be able to feature a Mexican family, to be able to feature Mexican protagonists,” he says. “I think there’s something really beautiful and necessary about being able to see yourself up on screen – see yourself as the hero. For a Mexican-American or Mexican family to be able to go together and have that experience, I think that would be a unique thing that they could share in watching this film.”
Marcela Davison Aviles (President and CEO of the Mexican Heritage Corporation in San Jose, Calif.), playwright Octavio Solis and political cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz were brought on by Pixar as cultural advisors for “Coco.”
When asked how big of a role Pixar’s cultural advisors had in shaping the film, director Lee Unkrich revealed Pixar did something they’ve “never done on any other film” by inviting the team of cultural advisors as well as other figures in the Latino community from across the country to every one of their screenings.
Alcaraz says each advisor brought something different to the table: “We each gave individual notes, we each have different strengths, so it was good to feel like between all three of us, the team members had it all covered. Marcela is a musical expert and writes extensive notes like a lawyer (because she is a Harvard trained lawyer) and makes me feel like I am a lazy slob. Octavio is a playwright and performer, and is really good on the theatrical aspects of the production. Me, I’m the cynical angry cholo whose strength is sometimes looking at things literally and catching what most people might miss. What a motley dream team!”
Unkrich, who co-directed “Finding Nemo,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Toy Story 2,” says the cultural advisers were an integral part of the filmmaking process.
“Some of them were very wary about what we were doing and not sure about what our intentions were and how seriously we were taking it, but I think we put them at ease pretty quickly,” he says. “But [we] also made them feel comfortable giving us, sometimes, big notes. We made some big changes in the story based on the input that we got from the advisers.”
Alcaraz says they wanted to film to feel authentic but not didactic.
“I looked for elements of the film and story that could be misconstrued as stereotypical or racist. I looked to include more Mexican elements in the film when possible, like additional Spanish in the dialogue, and made suggestions on specific words. I listened for pronunciations of Spanish words to make sure they didn’t sound off. I think we struck a good balance on giving comments that helped the cultural authenticity of the story without bogging it down as if it were some kind of Dia de los Muertos documentary.”
Alcaraz believes that Pixar’s hard work on the film will lead “Coco” to resonate far beyond the Mexican/Mexican community in the U.S. and Mexico.
“This movie will resonate with family, and will also send out good family vibes to everyone out there, Mexican/Latino or not. This is a time that we need to show how beautiful and rich other cultures can be, and how The Other is not scary, but just a person who happens to not be you. Like one of the Pixar fans out there in Twitterlandia said, ‘While some build walls, Pixar builds bridges.’ Also, the beauty of Mexico comes across clearly here, and also a note to the viewers and to future studios where I will be pitching movie ideas: Brown people sure do look really nice animated.”
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