Pixar celebrates Mexican culture with new offering Coco

New film 'Coco' celebrates Mexican culture as it follows a young boy as he finds himself in the land of the dead.
In Coco, Miguel is a 12-year-old Mexican boy dreaming of becoming a musician.
In Coco, Miguel is a 12-year-old Mexican boy dreaming of becoming a musician.PHOTO: DISNEY PIXAR

Coco has taken on unexpected political resonance in President Donald Trump's America

Pixar, the animation studio behind family-friendly hits such as Toy Story (1995), Finding Nemo (2003) and Inside Out (2015), usually stays clear of politics.

But Coco, its newest offering, is a celebration of Mexican culture that has taken on unexpected political resonance in President Donald Trump's America, say its cast and film-makers.

They spoke to The Straits Times and other media at a recent Los Angeles press day for the film, which opens in Singapore tomorrow after breaking box-office records in Mexico, where it has become the No. 1 film of all time.

The story follows Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a Mexican boy who defies his family's traditions to pursue his love of music.

On Dia de Muertos or the Day of the Dead - the Mexican holiday where people remember loved ones who have died - he accidentally gets trapped in the Land of the Dead and must enlist the help of deceased family members to escape.

The film's voice actors say it is a tribute to the Mexican language, music and traditions that feels even more vital given the disparaging remarks Mr Trump repeatedly made about Mexico and people of Mexican descent during his presidential campaign.

Although studies show no evidence that immigrants commit more crimes than native-born Americans, in one comment in 2015, Mr Trump said: "The Mexican government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists."

Gael Garcia Bernal - who plays Hector, one of Miguel's allies - says comments such as these are why Coco matters to young Latinos.

"If I could personally dedicate this film, it would be to the Latino kids growing up in the United States because in the official narrative, it's been said that their parents or grandparents or great-grandparents are rapists, murderers and drug traffickers," says the 39-year-old, winner of the Best Actor Golden Globe last year for the TV comedy-drama Mozart In The Jungle.

"These kids have been born in a moment of huge fear and they have to fight against the lie.

"It is very complicated to argue against the lie and this film is going to give kids a way to feel confident of where they come from, where their parents and grandparents come from, to know that they come from a very sophisticated culture, and to know that they can always access that."

Co-star Alanna Ubach, who voices Miguel's late great-grandmother Imelda, notes that the movie showcases the strong family values many Latino families hold dear.

The 42-year-old Girlfriends' Guide To Divorce actress (2014 to now) says: "It was very important for Pixar to make a movie like this because they really did pay respect to the one quality that Latin American families have, and that is the importance of family. That is something no president or borders and politics can ever break."

Edward James Olmos, the 70-year-old Mexican-American star of the Blade Runner films (1982 and this year) adds: "Six years ago, you didn't know we'd be, politically, in the shape that we're in. Nobody knew that Mexicans were going to be treated like they've been treated.

"The last few years have been very difficult for us and it's so hard to try to stay strong, but this movie has placed us in a very strong position for the future" because it has highlighted many positive aspects of Mexican culture, says the actor, who plays Hector's friend Chicharron.

Director Lee Unkrich, who instigated the film six years ago because of a personal fascination with the Day of the Dead, notes that now "is a very different time from when we started it".

"But the fact that we are releasing it in this time, we feel that much more honoured to be bringing something into the world that has a positive message because there has been so much negativity flooding us lately. We just feel hopefully that we can be part of the solution," says the film-maker, who directed Toy Story 3, the Oscar winner for Best Animated Film in 2011.

Producer Darla Anderson says Coco also honours values, such as the love for family, that all cultures share. "At the end of the day, when you watch these characters, people will recognise that we're all a lot more similar than we are different."

For Pixar, too, the movie represents a milestone: it is its first feature with a non-white lead character and a mainly Latino voice cast.

The studio went out of its way to ensure the film was culturally sensitive and accurate. Unkrich and his team, including co-director and screenwriter Adrian Molina, embarked on several research trips to Mexico, hiring cultural consultants to advise them on everything from the music to the family dynamics between characters.

Molina says those trips "weren't just about being tourists, but staying with families and learning about the tradition in that family setting - how a generation passes these practices on to the next and how important that is".

"When we started six years ago creating this film, the intention was not only to tell a beautiful story but also to showcase how beautiful this tradition, family and culture is... and how much there is to learn from other cultures."

Whatever the political climate, he says, that has not changed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2017, with the headline 'Celebrating Mexican culture'. Print Edition | Subscribe