Disney film spotlights Mexican culture

MIGUEL, ALONG WITH HIS PET XOLOITZCUINTLE DANTE, WALKS into the Land of the Dead in hopes of finding a way to return home.

The film Coco follows the story of a young Mexican boy named Miguel who has one dream: to become the next biggest musician. He idolizes an artist named Ernesto de la Cruz—who shares a striking resemblance to Pedro Infante—and has a seemingly natural talent for playing the guitar. However, his family has banned him from even listening to music. I found that very strange because Mexican culture is rich in music. On his journey through the land of the dead, on the Day of the Dead, Miguel learns the true meaning of the Mexican holiday, and he comes to realize the true importance of family. It’s a very beautiful story, with detailed, colorful visuals, and a lovely narrative that takes a family-friendly approach to the questions of life after death. It really is worth the rave reviews and I completely recommend watching it. However, that’s not what I’m going to talk about in this review. Instead, I’ll be talking about the uniqueness and importance of this film.

With a 96 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Disney Pixar’s Coco has been dominating the box office for over three weeks—and not just in the United States. The film, running at 109 minutes, first premiered on October 27 in Mexico, just a few days before Mexico’s Day of the Dead. In fewer than three weeks, the film was already breaking records—the first one being that it was officially the highest grossing movie ever in the country of Mexico. The film isn’t just doing great in the country it was based off of. Astoundingly, it has been taking China by storm, posting as the second highest weekend ever for an animated release, as well as the highest grossing Pixar release ever in China, something that was completely unexpected.

Why is this movie doing so well? Amidst the current political climate that has been giving rise to cultures of hate and fear, Disney dared to release a film in which the hero is a young Mexican boy—and they did everything right. To make sure the film was culturally accurate and respectful to the Mexican holiday, Pixar hired a small group of cultural consultants, including Lalo Alcaraz, the well-known cartoonist from Mexico. Alcaraz said he and the other consultants accomplished their mission to “Keep Coco from being whitewashed.” To further prove that the film tried to do everything right, the hired cast was made up of almost all Latino voices, with 12-year-old Anthony Gonzales as the protagonist Miguel.

Apart from hiring the cultural consultants and Latino cast, a lot went into making the film so accurate and wonderful. Coco’s music consultant was Camilo Lara, from the group Mexican Institute of Sound. He helped gather musicians for what he called “the crème de la crème from Mexico.” Lara also worked with composer Germaine Franco, who said she worked to infuse the folklore music she grew up with. The filmmakers were amazing at portraying so many different styles of authentically Mexican music. While watching the film, I got a feeling of nostalgia, as the music played by Miguel’s Idol, Ernesto de la Cruz, was reminiscent of the music I grew up with from the golden age of Mexican cinema, the Pedro Infante films. Not only was the style of music accurate, but as soon as I saw the character, I knew he was based off of Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete.

The music, the visuals, the history, all of it was perfect, but what made the movie amazing was that the characters were genuine. According to director Lee Unkrich, he and his creative team took multiple trips to Mexico—spanning six years—for inspiration and research. They visited with families and asked for their traditions, and from their time talking to families, they were able to create characters with mannerisms and small details that resonated with so many people, including me. I was able to see my great grandmother in Coco, my grandmother in Mama Imelda, my uncle Aldo in Miguel’s own uncles, and the similarities only continued. The movie made me miss my family, and I wished I had been watching it with them so we could have laughed together at all of the similarities and inside jokes the film managed to hide in the dialogue. The film also made me want to become more active in my family’s traditions on the Day of the Dead, something that has slowly been dying out since my family came to the U.S. It subtly made me a little more proud of my heritage—that is truly priceless—and, in my opinion, makes the film so much more unique than any of the animated Pixar stories I’ve watched throughout my life.