Writer and director Lee Unkrich signed on to helm Coco, Pixar's latest film, and then started feeling fear — not because Coco would be his follow-up to the Best Picture-nominated Toy Story 3 but because he was a White man telling a story rooted in Mexican culture.
In fact, Coco is the first Pixar film with a minority character in the lead role, as The New York Times points out, and it boasts a nearly all-Latinx cast. It's also the first Pixar film to be vetted by outside consultants — all because Unkrich and his team wanted to portray Mexican culture authentically.
In recent years, Hollywood has come under fire for cultural appropriation and whitewashing. For example, White actresses Emma Stone, Tilda Swinton, and Scarlett Johannson were cast as Asian or part-Asian characters in Aloha, Doctor Strange, and Ghost in the Shell, respectively; and last year, White actor Charlie Hunnam signed on to play a Mexican-American cartel boss in the film American Drug Lord.
And here Unkrich, who had no connection to Mexico, was directing the story of a 12-year-old Mexican boy named Miguel, whose quest to become a famous troubadour takes him through the Land of the Dead. The director was cautious — especially after Disney, Pixar's parent company, applied to trademark the phrase "Día de Los Muertos," the working title for the in-development Coco. That trademark application set off a firestorm of backlash online, and Pixar knew it had to take action.
For the first time, the company brought in outsiders to provide creative input — including playwright Octavio Solis, cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, media strategist Marcel Davison Avilés, and dozens of other volunteers.
Alcaraz, incidentally, had been a vocal critic of the proposed "Día de Los Muertos" trademarking. "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, [because], you know, I have strong opinions,' " he told Mitú. "My second reaction was, 'Pixar wants to talk to me.' A combination of joy and terror."
Pixar, however, wanted those strong opinions. "We don't normally open up the doors to let people in to see our early screenings," producer Darla K. Anderson told the Times. "But we really wanted their voice and their notes and to make sure we got all the details correct."
"Some of them were very wary about what we were doing and were not sure what our intentions were and how seriously we were taking it, but I think we put them at ease pretty quickly but also made them comfortable giving us sometimes big notes," Unkrich told reporters in August, per Slash Film. "We made some big changes to the story based on the input from the advisers. It was always in an effort to make the characters relatable and the story feel great, we didn't want this to be a lesson."
Unkrich and his team also embedded themselves in real-world families in the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Guanajuato between 2011 and 2013, and those families were the inspiration for Miguel's family in the film.
Now Coco is full of references to daily life in Mexico — everything from the breed of dog the boy has to the way the boy's grandmother scolds him. The characters even slip into untranslated Spanish occasionally. ("Language is binary, and we code-switch from English to Spanish seamlessly," Solis told the Times.)
"We found whenever we were made aware of these nuances and addressed them, it helped in terms of representation, but it also just helped in terms of storytelling," explained Coco screenwriter Adrian Molina, who joined Unkrich as co-director of the film in 2016.
The devotion to authenticity is paying off. Coco is already the highest-grossing animated film ever in Mexico.
"This movie is a departure, but it's a departure without making a big deal out of it," said Alex Nogales, president and chief executive of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. "They're just representing who we are."
"We're just honored and grateful that we can bring something positive and hopeful into the world that can maybe do its own small part to dissolve and erode some of the barriers that there are between us," Unkrich said.
Cover photo via Disney
The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.