Feature Article

The Lengths Pixar Went To Keep Coco Respectful Of Mexican Culture

To the Land of the Dead and back

As the next film from the esteemed and inimitable Pixar, Coco has all the makings of something huge. But as a film about Mexican culture, it also represents a potential minefield when it comes to the ways it represents people's very real cultural heritage and personal identities. Pixar has experience with films about other cultures, from Brave's portrayal of medieval Scotland to Ratatouille's setting in France. But centered as it is on a non-white and non-English speaking culture, Coco presented an even greater challenge. Luckily, the filmmakers were keen to do it right, as GameSpot learned on a recent press trip to Pixar's Emeryville, Calif. headquarters.

Set in a small town in Mexico, Coco follows a young boy named Miguel who longs to be a famous musician like his idol, the celebrated Ernesto De La Cruz. The movie takes place during Mexico's famous Dia de los Muertos--the Day of the Dead--celebration, the one day a year when passed family members are invited back to the land of the living. The movie's focus rests entirely on family, but there's the conflict, too: Miguel's family hates music and musicians. He practices on an acoustic guitar while cloistered in a hidden attic where nobody but his street dog amigo, Dante, can find him.

It's natural to feel wary when a gigantic company--even one with as phenomenal a reputation as Pixar--appears to seek to capitalize on another culture. The filmmakers confessed that they worked hard to navigate potential pitfalls.

"The moment [Pixar Chief Creative Office John Lasseter] said 'Yes, this is the idea I want you to pursue,' I went oh my gosh, what did I just get myself into? Because I knew that I had to get it right," said Coco Director Lee Unkrich, whose previous directing credits include Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and Toy Story 2 and 3. "The last thing I wanted to do was make a film that felt like it was made by an outsider. I'm not Latino and I will never be Latino. I just can't change that. But I comforted myself in knowing that there have been a lot of great films made over time by filmmakers that were not of the cultures they were making films about."

He was first inspired to make a film centered on Dia de los Muertos by the Mexico pavilion in Disney's multi-cultural Epcot park in Florida. "I had always been drawn to Dia de los Muertos, the idea of the celebration, the folk art, the iconography of it," he told members of the press.

Plus, Pixar films are enormously successful in Mexico--prior to The Avengers, Toy Story 3 was the biggest movie ever in the country, Unkrich said. "That started the first little seed of me thinking, wow, I've never seen anything quite like that in animation, or live action," he said. "There hadn't been a film about Dia de los Muertos."

Once Lasseter approved it, they began an exhaustive years-long research process that would take them all over Mexico. "I started learning more about the celebration, and the beauty of it really opened up to me," Unkrich said. "It blossomed, and went beyond just an appreciation for the artwork to a much deeper understanding of what the celebration was really all about, and this whole notion of this family reunion that spans the divide between the living and the dead. And I just started to see a lot of potential for a story."

L to R: Adrian Molina, Producer Darla K. Anderson, and Lee Unkrich
L to R: Adrian Molina, Producer Darla K. Anderson, and Lee Unkrich

Unkrich isn't directing Coco alone. "When I heard that Coco got greenlit I was like 'put me on that movie. It sounds wonderful. It sounds beautiful,'" said Adrian Molina, the film's writer and co-director. Molina is of Mexican-American heritage, and he said he felt a huge responsibility to get this right.

"So much of the film is about family and your connection to family, and in my experience, in my upbringing, it's true of my Mexican-American community that that is very important," he said. "I think there's something really beautiful and necessary about being able to see yourself up on-screen, see yourself as the hero. And for a Mexican-American or a 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."

Coco sees Miguel travel from his hometown all the way to the Land of the Dead in pursuit of his dream. But despite its fantastical elements, everything is grounded in Miguel's desire not just to become a musician, but to be accepted by his family no matter what. He can't just run away with his guitar--that's what his great-great-grandfather did, and it caused his family seemingly irreparable harm. He has to prove himself to them, helping his family to see the joy of music as he does.

"We made some big changes in the story based on the input that we got from the advisers."

Miguel's unwavering dedication to his family is one of the aspects of Mexican culture that's central to Coco. That same accuracy and authenticity could be seen in every facet of the movie shown to press, from the movie's opening scenes to Miguel's foray into the Land of the Dead. Everything from the all-important music to the background art in every shot was painstakingly crafted by dedicated teams intent on creating a Mexican town that looks and sounds authentic. That attention to detail is a Pixar trademark, but in the case of Coco it can also be attributed to the cultural consultants with which the filmmakers worked at every step, beginning even earlier in the process than on most Pixar films.

"We did something that we've never done on any other film: We actually brought the core team of our cultural consultants, the three of them, we started inviting them to every one of our [internal] screenings," Unkrich said. "Normally at Pixar we play our cards really close, and it's not until very late in production that we start to do public preview screenings. But in this case we started showing the film not just to them, but we had a series of screenings where we brought in cultural advisers from Los Angeles and different places around the country, some pretty important figures in the Latino community, and let them into the tent, as it were, to see what we were up to."

"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--but also made them feel comfortable giving us sometimes big notes," he continued. "We made some big changes in the story based on the input that we got from the advisers."

No Caption Provided

For example, in earlier versions of Coco Miguel's Abuelita--his grandmother--carried a wooden spoon tucked in her apron strings, like a six-shooter, to whack people who made her angry. "It was one of our advisers who said, 'No no no no, it has to be her chancla,'" Unkrich said. "She's got to pull off her slipper and beat them with it." The film turned out better for it--Miguel's family are shoemakers, after all, and Abuelita's new weapon felt all at once truer to the character, more authentic, and funnier. Unkrich said that's just one of many examples where their work with cultural experts made the movie better.

It also doesn't hurt that every member of Coco's voice cast--with the sole exception of John Ratzenberger, who traditionally has had at least one line in every Pixar movie to date--is Latino. From Gael Garcia Bernal, who plays the wily skeleton Hector, to newcomer Anthony Gonzalez, who voices Miguel, each actor brought his or her own perspective and experience to the movie, according to the filmmakers.

"I have a little bit of Spanish as a second language, but my primary language is English, and so I'll write a line that expresses what we need to express, but then we also want to use our actors as a resource and say 'If you can say this line in a way that feels more natural to you and more natural to this character, by all means go for it,'" Molina said. "And Gael really went for it. He started keying onto things like, 'I want to call [Miguel] 'chamaco,' because that feels like an old-timey kind of way that this guy might relate to this kid.' And we're like, 'OK, do it. Go for it.'"

"If we have any missteps, it's not for lack of trying really hard."

Years of research and work on the part of countless individuals both inside and out of Pixar have gone into making Coco not just a great Pixar film--but a culturally respectful one, too. Ultimately, the filmmakers appreciate this responsibility, and they emphasized that they believe they've done their best.

"I took the responsibility very seriously, and I have for many, many years," Unkrich said. "It's been great having Adrian at my side, and all of the cultural consultants that we've gathered, and the many Latino members of our crew that have been a part of this for a long time. I hope we got it right. If we have any missteps, it's not for lack of trying really hard."

Based on what we've seen of Coco so far, it's a safe bet to say that their efforts paid off. The movie is now in theaters. For more, check out our Coco review.

Disclosure: ViacomCBS is GameSpot's parent company

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

mrougeau

Michael Rougeau

Mike Rougeau is GameSpot's Senior Entertainment Editor. He loves Game of Thrones and dogs.

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awtcurtis

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Edited By awtcurtis

Just a heads up for those asking, a Frozen featurette will be screening in front of Coco. It should be pretty cool!

Also, it seems like a lot of people in the comments think Pixar does cultural research out of a fear of offending people. That is literally the exact opposite of what happens. It's not something that the filmmakers are forced to do, it's something that they WANT to do. Telling an authentic story means telling a better story. Celebrating the unique qualities of your subject matter means telling a better story. Being culturally aware means telling a better story. Doing the opposite, making a film in ignorance, can only cheapen it and doom it to failure.

Thankfully, Coco is not a failure. It's a fantastic story, told with authenticity and sophistication. Seriously, go see it, it's one of the best films the studio has ever made.












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cmc5790

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Edited By cmc5790

Basically what I take from this, is that you can't make a movie that has Mexican culture in it, unless you are also Mexican. Because not being Mexican means that you can't possibly know about Mexican culture. I think its dumb that they have to worry about being "respectful" to Mexican culture when they never intended disrespect in the first place. I guarantee the movie will be good, Pixar doesn't usually botch things (USUALLY) but the fact that they are worried about offending people in any way may diminish the potential.

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Pierce_Sparrow

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I think people need to not be so culturally sensitive. As a Jew, when people create entertainment with generic aspects of it or use stereotypes, I typically laugh it off. It's not hard to get things right if you do the research. And people need to lighten up. If Pixar doesn't get it 100% correct, people don't need to have a fit about it.

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Dark_Matters

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This looks like a mishmash of The Book of Life and Kubo and the Two Strings.

And by mishmash I mean kinda ripoff-y.

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mrbojangles25

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@Dark_Matters: I say pish-posh to your comments of mish-mash!

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musalala

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SJW will complain regardless

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Sohereiam

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@musalala: They will, it's like sex for them.

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lorddaggeroff

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Parents abuse child, feed child nasty stuff, then child becomes a weirdo. (Hugs if you are ????????Down boy to much hugs ?)

Kid watches Pixar movie and aspires to be a better version of them selves.

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mrbojangles25

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Edited By mrbojangles25

You know when you're carrying a too-full glass of water and you think "Dont spill, don't spill, don't spill, don't spill..." and 99/100 times you spill?

When you stress about offending someone and tell the ENTIRE DAMN WORLD ABOUT it guess what? You will probably actually offend MORE PEOPLE since you've all made them/us painfully aware about it.

Mexico is just Mexico, they are as bad, average, and amazing as the rest of us. I will admit they have better food than most of the world (maybe all of the world). . Maybe it's just due to the political climate? I am sure they were planning this movie long before Trump took office.

With that said, I am looking forward to this film. I love when Pixar makes movies that are culture-centric (like Ratatouile, Brave) and focused on music.

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collbanth

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@mrbojangles25: I still have yet to find anything as good (food-wise) as I've had in mexico

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XenomorphAlien

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@mrbojangles25: Mexican food is legit.

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Sohereiam

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@mrbojangles25: Of course they were, you can't plan a movie like this less than year, specially if they're Hillary's electors, it means they deeply believed she would've won so no way they would plan it thinking of her loss.

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ZmanBarzel

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Has Pixar or Disney revealed what the short that will precede "Coco" will be?

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mrougeau

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mrougeau  Staff

@zmanbarzel: Not that I know of.

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ZmanBarzel

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@mrougeau: Thank you! Those shorts have come to be some of my favorite parts of recent Pixar movies since they let rookie directors try things that might not work in a full-length movie.

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Sohereiam

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@zmanbarzel: Also it shows that some rookie directors are better on the job than some long time director that tend to put their politic position on the job instead of their art.

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dmblum1799

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I'm looking forward to this movie. Me interesa la cultura Mexicana.

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Dragerdeifrit

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Edited By Dragerdeifrit

Not so fun fact: Nobody cares about dia de muertos here in Mexico, it's only "celebrated" for educational purposes in schools in a futile attempt to keep the tradition alive. Both kids and adults just celebrate regular halloween and dress up as iron man, Generic zombie no.234 and Freddy kruger and go out asking for candies/money or just go parties. Which admittely is 300% more fun than Dia de muertos, lol >_>

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Sohereiam

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@Dragerdeifrit: My mom hate this day, even though it's her birthday, it's mainly because here on Brazil they would form lines to go to the graveyard and smell of candles made her nervous.

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coop36

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Edited By coop36

Come on, we know some will still find trivial crap to be offended by. Im slowly growing numb to it. Maybe that was the whole point?

Its sad that everyone has to walk on eggshells all the time, and cant freely express their creativity anymore without fearing repercussions by the thought police. The fact that they have to 'prove' how respectful theyre trying to be only illustrates this.

Stop pandering to weak-minded fools and they would lose their pull. Theyll never be satisfied anyway, they only want more and more.

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zyxe

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zyxe  Moderator

@coop36: I think I get what you're saying, I agree that sensitivity should be taken down a notch. I do, however, think it's cool that Pixar is trying to get the culture right, as right as they can, anyway.

Heck, even within a single culture you'll find many differences and many opinions, there's no way to please everyone and do anything meaningful, so hopefully they'll get credit for the good they are trying to accomplish.

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zyxe

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zyxe  Moderator

Hi fellow GS commentors,

Please be respectful of all cultures in your comments for this article. This isn't the place to provide comments that include negative generalizations and stereotypes or hyperbolic politics, but it is the place to have a respectful discussion about cultures as they are represented in various movies.

Again: please keep the conversation respectful. We don't all have to agree, but we can all be civilized!

Thank you!

GameSpot Moderation Team

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mrougeau

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mrougeau  Staff

@zyxe: Thank you. :)

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mcdowd

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Sadly, despite what appears to be a tremendous effort to "get it right," I am betting they get skewered by the media and people who are unhappy with how Mexican culture is portrayed.

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cmc5790

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@mcdowd: Agreed... they could even hire an entire staff of Hispanics to create this movie and there would still be someone protesting about the white man appropriating another culture.

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inkman66

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Thank goodness when they make movies like Talladega Nights, Masterminds and Logan Lucky they really spend time researching the culture of the Southern United States to make sure they get it accurate so as not to offend any Southern White Americans.

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CraigTL

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@inkman66: Its called satire which this movie is not there is a huge difference stop reaching.

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coop36

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@craigtl: Youre being willfully ignorant if you arent seeing the big picture here. Theres a reason people say "If it werent for double standards, Hollywood would have no standards at all".

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CraigTL

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@coop36: Look up movies like Black Dynamite and Don't be a menace to south Central. Those movies are the urban equivalent of movies like Talladega Nights and there are many more. You cannot sit here and act like there is only one side to this coin.... You can pretend of you want but if you are not going to be honest then there is no need to reply to me. Wish you the best and I hope you find peace for whatever is making you so angry.

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CraigTL

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Edited By CraigTL

@coop36: Looking for a movie like Talladega Nights to be politically correct is willfully ignorant. Its not days of thunder. Like I said, he is comparing satire films to an animated family film that wants to represent the culture correctly. He acts as if there aren't any movies that make fun of other stereotypes that are non white, that's what is ignorant. You both live in the same bubble and refuse to accept information from out side of it. You are the fools who believe that the only prejudice that exist is the one against southern white people. Now that is willfully ignorant.

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The_Inebriator

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"It's natural to feel wary when a gigantic company--even one with as phenomenal a reputation as Pixar--appears to seek to capitalize on another culture."

I never understood this mentality. As someone with some Latino blood, I'm proud to finally see Pixar/Disney make a story centered on this culture. Storytelling is celebration, not capitalization.

Also, all the ignorant morons who commented below are pathetic. I'm proud to be white too, but you people make me sick.

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ZmanBarzel

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I wonder if Disney will do a "Buy 'Coco' on Blu-ray/DVD, get a free downloadable copy of 'Grim Fandango'" deal.

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beirutchamp

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Yes! The animated prequel to Desperado!

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LpcWarrior

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@beirutchamp: So it's an animated version of "El Mariachi"?

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