The Genius of “Coco” Beyond PC

MUSINGS BY MIRISCH-There’s something about Pixar and senior citizens. The world’s leading animation studio, groundbreaking within an art form traditionally associated with children and families, seems to be at its absolute best when making pictures featuring senior citizen characters -- perhaps the least traditional of animation characters -- in prominent roles. 

Their first such film was Up from 2009, with 78-year old Carl Fredricksen, voiced by Ed Asner, as the film’s main character. The latest is Coco with the title role, the ancient Mama Coco, voiced by Ana Ofelia Murguia. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait long for the next Pixar film featuring senior citizen characters… 

Like Up, Pixar’s Coco is an extraordinary film. 

Coco is Pixar’s nearest attempt yet at a musical, which is extremely fitting within the context of the film’s (admittedly absurd) main premise: 12 year-old Miguel, who comes from a long line of shoemakers, is forbidden by his family from liking, listening to or – heaven forbid – making music because his great-great grandmother’s husband, a musician, left her and the family. 

Of course, Miguel has an innate and deep love of music and wants to be a musician, which puts him in conflict with his family and sets the entire story in motion. 

And so, we follow Miguel into the land of the dead on the Día de Muertos, the traditional Mexican celebration of remembering departed family members which takes place from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2. And, yes, suspending one’s disbelief at the notion of the Rivera family’s intense intergenerational musicophobia is quite frankly a greater challenge than suspending it to enter Pixar’s fully formed land of the dead. 

Beautiful Mexican traditions offer Pixar’s artists the opportunity to create a visually stunning world, incorporating the colors, imagery, legends and traditions associated with Día de Muertos. 

Unlike Up, in which Fredricksen, the protagonist, is joined by 6 year-old Wilderness Explorer Russell, Miguel is the protagonist of Coco. Mama Coco herself is a relatively minor figure when it comes to screen time, but absolutely pivotal when it comes to the movie’s themes, which are similar to those from Up: the act of remembering, the connections between generations, and the meaning of family.  A studio would not normally name a film after a minor character, let alone a nonagenarian with little screen time. Titling the movie Coco, which marketeers may have eschewed in favor of something more marketable (such as the working title Día de los Muertos, which Disney at one point actually lamely tried to trademark), is itself a stroke of genius. The movie is about Miguel and his journey, but Mama Coco is the heart and soul of the film. 

Other similarities with Up include conscious references to old movies and the referencing (and creation of) a history which predates the plots’ current timeframe, as well as marked similarities between the films’ bad guys. 

Coco, a love letter to Mexican culture and traditions, was originally pitched by director Lee Unkrich in 2011 to John Lasseter. To avoid any potential taint of “cultural appropriation,” Pixar employed a veritable battery of “cultural advisors” in making Coco, and Unkrich made it clear that using an all-Latino cast was “non-negotiable” (with the evident exception of John Ratzenberger). In this day and age, it is easy to understand how Unkrich and Pixar might have left themselves open to criticism that they had somehow “appropriated” Latino culture if they hadn’t gone to such great pains to incorporate Latino creative input, including using an exclusively Latino cast. 

While it seems natural that Mexicans would play a major role in the development of a movie which is based on Mexican traditions, a “Latino only” casting policy should also be fundamentally unnecessary in the small world envisioned by the Sherman Brothers. 

Benjamin Bratt is fantastic as the swaggery Ernesto de la Cruz. On his mother’s side, Bratt is of indigenous Peruvian heritage (and European on his father’s side). But he’s an American-born actor who in the role of de la Cruz uses an affected Mexican accent, sounding like a latter-day Ricardo Montalbán. Mexico and Peru are very different countries with different cultures and traditions, something which may not always be appreciated by Americans who visit Latin American countries and expect to find tacos on the menu in all of them. Would Bratt have been any less good as de la Cruz if his mother had hailed from, say, Spain or Ireland instead of Peru? 

While Breakfast at Tiffany’s Mickey Rooney-style caricatures are antiquated and offensive and have no place in our evolved society, great actors today should be able to cross-over and play whatever roles they feel drawn to. Shakespearean actors of all backgrounds and ethnicities should make all the world a stage and all of us more sensitive to the beauty of multiple cultures. Equal opportunity should rule, along with respect, authenticity and affection for various cultures and traditions. 

Mix it up, I say -- while of course making sure that no actors or creative people have any disadvantage because of their ethnic backgrounds, origins, genders or favorite baseball teams.  Traditionally, Hollywood hasn’t been great at mixing it up, but perhaps it has a chance to finally get it right now while avoiding unthinking, PC backlashes. 

Coco is rooted in Mexican culture. A prerequisite for being part of the creative process shouldn’t be Latino (or Mexican) blood, but respect, knowledge and affection for the story and for Mexican culture.  At the same time, I understand the need to provide opportunities for talent of all backgrounds, something Hollywood has been deficient at in the past. 

Pixar’s “Latino only” cast policy seems to be a studied and understandable response to past cultural insensitivity on the part of Hollywood, with the pendulum now swinging in the other direction. But in the case of Coco, such a policy should have been unnecessary because Unkrich’s conception of the film came from the best of places and the Pixar team did its homework. Perhaps the crux here is the distinction between accusations of “cultural appropriation” and cultural inspiration. Picasso incorporated African culture in his artwork. Murakami (and manga) has incorporated elements of American culture into his creations. Ravel and Bizet incorporated Spanish culture and tropes into their music. And Michael Giacchino, in crafting an original score for Coco, allowed himself to learn about and be inspired by Mexican musical traditions in his creation of sumptuous, moving movie music. 

Coco is both a work of art and a marvelous film. But it’s also more than that. While it may have originally been pitched as a movie set against the background of Día de Muertos and while it has been informed by Mexican traditions, at its core Coco is also a Disney/Pixar film about all of us. Any film that, while sharing a unique cultural perspective, can touch us, make us laugh, make us cry and make us feel connected to each other – both now and through the generations -- can only help spread understanding and appreciation for the various unique cultures and backgrounds of which we are all a part. And that’s just what Coco does. 

In the words of Ricardo Montalbán: “Now, that’s beautiful.”


(John Mirisch has served on the Beverly Hills City Council since 2009 and twice served as mayor.  He created the Sunshine Task Force to increase transparency in local government. John is a CityWatch contributor.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.