By Robert Wood
How do you want to be remembered? How do you reconcile your personal goals with the needs of your family? How far are you willing to go to pursue your passions in life? These are three, of a multitude of themes tackled in Coco, the latest Disney-Pixar cinematic production released this year. Most recently Coco has become the highest-grossing film in Mexico following its release there prior to releasing in the U.S. The animated film then attained the top box office spot in the United States for three weeks straight, and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Animated Motion Picture.
Coco tells the tale of Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a boy from a family of shoemakers with a zeal not for “zapaterismo” but for performing “canciones” on his guitar. His hero is Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), an actor-cantante a la Pedro Infante. In his quest to prove himself, Miguel finds himself caught between the world of the living and the Land of the Dead. Like many of its predecessors in the Pixar pantheon, Coco features a race to return home, and a dazzling, daring journey in which characters discover their internal strengths and the true nature of others around them. Why does the film have broad appeal to audiences from a variety of backgrounds? Coco possesses an authentic depiction of Mexican culture that surpasses common archetypes and an accessible, universal message that transcends borders, real or imagined.
Disney is no stranger to featuring Mexico and Mexican elements in their films, having produced The Three Caballeros in the early 1940s as a by-product of FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy, as well as Herbie Goes Bananas, a fourquel to The Love Bug featuring the titular anthropomorphic Volkswagen Beetle’s adventures south of the border. The aforementioned feature-length films an array of talented performers of Mexican heritage. Singer, bandleader and owner of San Francisco’s Copacabana nightclub Joaquin Garay provided the voice of Donald Duck’s friend, rooster Panchito Pistoles, in The Three Caballeros. Garay also played various Mexican characters in the Goofy animated short For Whom The Bull Toils. Garay’s son, Joaquin Garay III portrayed Paco, a young pickpocket who befriends Herbie.
However, the earlier films garnered criticism for their reliance on stereotypes and all-too-familiar tropes regarding Mexican culture, and by extension, Latin America. All three prior Disney productions feature a bullfight, and in the two feature-length Disney films bullfighting is not essential to the story. Bullfighting simply serves as a rote signifier of a Mexican or Latin American setting in these earlier works. In addition, while Joaquin Garay III’s portrayal of Paco is endearing, the fact that the primary Mexican character is a pickpocket hearkens back to the representation of people of Mexican descent as thieves and criminals. Far from being authentic, these archetypes are based upon media-driven images of Latinos, Mexicans, and Chicanos rather than on real people, real traditions, or real experiences. Audiences didn’t exactly go bananas for the fourquel either: with a domestic box office return of only $18 million, the film gave the weakest performance in the Herbie the Love Bug series.
So why has the success of Coco, with box-office returns currently over $180 million as of January 1, 2018, surpassed that of earlier efforts? Coco featured a variety of Latino talent not only behind the microphone but also in the writers’ room. Adrian Molina, a Mexican-American originally from Yuba City, California, wrote and co-directed the feature. In addition, the Coco team included a variety of cultural advisors, three of whom are especially familiar to fans of the Chicano creative world: Lalo Alcaraz, Luis Valdez, and Evelina Fernandez
Chicano cartoonist extraordinaire Alcaraz has an extensive history of contributions to the Chicano creative community in a multitude of media. He is likely best known for his satirical comic strip La Cucaracha, which has spent 25 years running in the funnies. He also co-created the comedy troupe Chicano Secret Service and hosts the Pocho Hour of Power radio show on KPFK in Los Angeles. Lalo Alcaraz went from a critic to a contributor to the Disney animated community: he became an outspoken critic of Disney’s attempt to trademark the phrase Dia De Los Muertos in 2013.
Following a considerable backlash exemplified by one of Alcaraz’s strips in La Cucaracha entitled “Muerto Mouse”, Disney not only dropped its attempt to trademark the phrase but also hired Alcaraz as an advisor for the film. Alcaraz also wrote for the Culture Clash sketch comedy series which premiered on FOX in 1993, which starred the performance troupe of the same name. One of the three stars of Culture Clash, Herbert Siguenza, voiced Tío Oscar and Tío Felipe, uncles of Miguel Rivera who passed over to the other side and living in the Land of the Dead.
Over two years ago, I wrote about the accomplishments of one of the other advisors in the film, Luis Valdez, the accomplished playwright and director known as the Father of Chicano Theater. He voices Tío Berto, Miguel’s uncle in the living world as well as Don Hidalgo, an antagonist in a film-within-a-film. Valdez’s El Teatro Campesino troupe made significant contributions to Chicano history and culture both on and off the stage.
Conceived during the United Farm Workers’ struggle in the fields in September 1965, El Teatro Campesino featured sketches reflecting the issues farmworkers dealt with on the fields like organizing, the UFW campaigns in the fields and at the negotiation table. Valdez’s oeuvre includes both an array of plays and a number of films and television productions, including Zoot Suit, La Bamba, La Pastorela, and The Cisco Kid.
Valdez was a mentor to another advisor on the film, Evelina Fernandez. Fernandez is a successful actress and playwright who co-founded the Latino Theater Company and has written a multitude of plays including A Mexican Trilogy: Faith, Hope & Charity, Premeditation, Dementia, and the screenplay Luminarias among others.
According to a Bloomberg article by Christopher Palmeri and Andrea Navarro, Fernandez along with others advised Pixar about the soundtrack. She indicated that the makers of Coco reached out to the community. Fernandez is also recognizable for her performance as Julie in American Me, which was directed by Edward James Olmos and featured Dyana Ortelli, both of whom voiced characters in Coco.
Coco boasts a plethora of both Mexican and U.S. Latino talent in the film, including not only Valdez, Siguenza, Olmos, Ortelli and Alcaraz but also Alfonso Arau, Alanna Ubach, Gael García Bernal, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Benjamin Bratt, Edward James Olmos, Lombardo Boyar, Daniel E. Mora,Renee Victor, Cheech Marin, Jaime Camil, Sofia Espinosa, Gabriel Iglesias, Ruth Livier, Efrain Figueroa, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Octavio Solis (also an advisor), Gary Cervantes, Luisa Leschin, Mike Gomez, Marabina Jaimes, Jacqueline Piñol, Montse Hernandez, Selene Luna and Blanca Araceli among others rounding out the ensemble.
Anthony Gonzalez, the young actor who previously appeared on FX’s The Bridge among other works, portrays the protagonist Miguel. The film showcases a smorgasbord of Mexican and Mexican-American traditional touchstones ranging from but not limited to the ofrendas, the jarocho and banda music, and an homage to the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema.
But Coco is more than a mere immersion into a particular culture. It is evident from the film’s stellar box-office performance worldwide, having amassed $541 million at the global box office as of January 1, 2018, that its story, characters, and underlying themes resonate with audiences who may have never seen a film with Pedro Infante or eaten an alfeñique. The intersection between fame, family, and the freedom to pursue one’s dream comprise the core of Coco’s message, a message which traverses the depth of the human experience.
The voice of Chicharrón, Edward James Olmos, starred in three popular Chicano films, Stand and Deliver and Selena, which explore these themes. Selena made $35.5 million from a $20 million budget and continues to be broadcast, viewed, and remembered fondly. Stand and Deliver made $13.9 million from a $1.6 million budget, and continues to be screened, especially in educational settings. Both films portray a young woman torn between their goals or desires and the expectations of members of their family, in both cases a disapproving father. The Book of Life, another successful film centered around Day of the Dead, featured a young músico locking horns with a proud family of toreros. La Bamba, Luis Valdez’s biggest box-office smash with $54.2 million against a $6.5 million budget, charted the path of two half-brothers’ pursuit of rock’n’roll and visual art, respectively.
La Bamba, Selena, and The Book of Life have another commonality with the latest offering from Pixar: memorable musical compositions. La Bamba had Ritchie Valens’ rock blended with traditional Mexican music. Selena boasted Tejano cumbia and U.S. adult contemporary blended with pop, utilizing the original recordings of Selena Quintanilla’s work. The Book of Life, written and directed by Mexico City-born and Tijuana-raised Jorge R. Gutierrez, highlights an aspiring musician in one of its main stories, complete with original songs. Coco contains a repertoire of songs in a variety of styles that accompany Miguel on his extensive voyage. For the husband-wife team of the film’s songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Coco allowed them to seize their moment.
There isn’t much more I can say about the message of Lee Unkrich’s and Adrian Molina’s film without tipping my hand on the variety of twists or spoil the various surprises. But the moral of the movie is very much in line with the themes of creativity, compassion, and resilience that Luis Valdez and those who followed him championed with their works. I stated in my previous article that “It can be said that in addition to being the father of Chicano theater, Luis Valdez planted the seeds that would grow into the Chicano cinematic family tree.” Coco can be considered one of the products of a long-awaited harvest, a fruit of the community’s labor decades in the making.