The Journey to Coco and the Road Ahead

By Aristotle Páez-Batt

Warning: Coco spoilers ahead.

When I was thirteen, I wrote an essay on Pixar Animation Studios.

Back then, I had a bit of an affinity for Disney films. What kid didn’t at some point, right? It was a brand built on the basis of telling stories, and if there was anything a Mexican kid like myself wanted, it was to tell mine.

So you can imagine my surprise when I found out someone had beaten me to the punch. On April 24th, 2012, Pixar announced that Lee Unkrich’s next film would be a film about the traditional Mexican holiday, Día de los Muertos. It was branded “ The Untitled Pixar Movie About Día de los Muertos” and officially added to Pixar’s roster.

Initial concept art for “The Untitled Pixar Movie About Día de los Muertos”.

I was, of course, thirteen, and thrilled with the concept. Mexican stories were just about nonexistent in mainstream media, and the thought of a company as well known as Disney seemed like a dream. It felt like Hollywood had finally let us join the party; I felt as though my hopes for the future had been validated in that moment, as if this announcement was a sign that what I wanted to do was possible.

This all may seem like purple prose, but that’s what made this event so significant for me; the thought that that moment would be the moment I would be able to tell one day. The moment I saw myself making films, telling stories, the moment I began wondering what I would say as I held an Oscar or a Golden Globe. I can still picture the day I read the headline; my abuelo outside, trimming the bushes and watering the plants. My abuela making pozole in the kitchen. I can hear her novelas playing from the living room, recording on her VCR for her to catch up on when she was finished with lunch.

So, yes, this was a bit of a big deal for me.

I subscribed to a few Pixar blogs shortly after. Hoping for news, more information, maybe even more concept art to hold me over.

Instead, I found a trademark claim.

This movie was, for all intents and purposes, my grand introduction to the true World of Disney.

Yes, Disney tried to place a trademark on the term “Día de los Muertos”. This was, naturally, immediately met with scorn from Mexican-American communities. The claim was pulled within a week, but the effects of the stunt lingered over the project. It had suddenly become clear to everyone what this movie truly set out to do.

It was a first for me. The first time I’d actually been old enough to process such a blatant attempt at the capitalizing on my heritage. The first time it had happened to something I’d already sold my heart to. It was like a wake up call I was receiving too soon. I was suddenly acutely aware of the motives behind this corporation and their interest in my culture. They weren’t trying to tell our story anymore. They were preparing to profit off of it.

It was like a light went on in my head, like suddenly each and every aspect of this company I once admired had taken off their mouse ears and shown the horns underneath. This movie was, for all intents and purposes, my grand introduction to the true World of Disney.

So maybe I was a little bitter. It wasn’t exactly the greatest revelation for a thirteen year old to have, after all. I had made it a goal in my life to find a way to tell my stories, only to find out a white man had decided to tell it for me after being inspired by some folk art. Not to mention the good ol’ Disney corporation standing behind him to make a quick buck off of merchandise for it.

At the same time, another film representing the holiday was in the works. So I abandoned the Disney project. I decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble, and shifted my support to something I felt was telling a story for the right reasons.

The Book of Life came and went, bringing with it a new attitude towards the Latin American audience in Hollywood. Following the film, I felt like I was floating on air. There was a newfound interest in Día de los Muertos that, at the time, I expected great things from. Unfortunately, like Icarus himself, my own naive optimism would become my undoing. I soon found myself hurdling back to Earth at the hands of the blinding force that was The White Man.

The Book of Life had sparked a newfound interest in the aesthetic of Día de los Muertos, without any care for the cultural significance of it. Sugar skull makeup became an annual trend every Halloween season, I began seeing mass-produced calaveras and catrinas with ‘Made in China’ engraved against the bottoms. Even when I tried encouraging cultural appreciation, explaining what ofrendas were and inviting people to festivals, it was clear that there was no actual interest in the significance of the holiday past the face value.

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Looks a bit like Univision, come to think of it.

By this point, I was in high school and capable of holding my own in the assuming debates. The infamous ‘cultural appropriation’ conversations that took place around 2014, following people of color’s mounting dissatisfaction with normalized racism up to that point were a big step forward in many communities, and Chicanx communities were no different. By the time they announced Coco would be arriving to theaters, I was (however naively) hopeful that any more inappropriate behavior by the Disney company wouldn’t go unchecked.

The consumers, of course, had other plans.

Upon Coco’s revival from what my friends like to call ‘production purgatory’, they announced the films writer, Adrian Molina, had been bumped up to the strange role of co-director. Along with their interviews where they discuss their ‘conversations with Mexican people and organizations,’ it seemed the movie’s producers had turned a new leaf. I was blindly optimistic for about two minutes before it became apparent their marketing campaign boiled down to ‘la chancla’ jokes and the strange use of alebrijes and Xoloitzcuintli dogs as exotic Mexican creatures to dangle in front of American audiences. Both of which, I might add, have strong ties to indigenous populations in Mexico in a film that does little to address even the existence of said people.

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You won’t find these in America! (Or Northern Mexico…)

A few months later, Coco premiered, lauded by Mexican and American audiences alike for its ‘breath of fresh air’ and its ‘beautiful take on Mexican culture.’ While I won’t argue that Coco was a well made film, I don’t agree the same can be said once the cultural aspects come into play.

From the previously mentioned renaming of alebrijes early on in the story to the distasteful Frida Kahlo appearances, its clear this movie is intended to be not a true Mexican story, but a version of it repackaged and watered down for American audiences. The narrative itself relies on strange concepts for it’s subject matter; a border in the Land of the Dead, unquestioned and shown without a sliver of criticism for its existence, and the portrayal of the afterlife having its very own chaste system, complete with barrios filled with impoverished people simply waiting out the clock to a morbid and romanticized death.

Aside from the fact that such concepts deeply contradict the indigenous ideas and beliefs that Dia de los Muertos is based on, they show these pieces of the afterlife — which I have no doubt are intended to highlight actual problems in modern day Mexico — without actually solving them. The movie ends with Hector being accepted into the ranks of the upper-class skeletons (an ironic place for Frida Kahlo, a known socialist in her time,) and receives his pseudo-passport in the form of a portrait on the ofrenda. The main story comes to a neat close without actually addressing any of its societal problems left behind.

Ironically, one of the issues that remains unmentioned is the erasure of indigenous people in the celebration of Dia de los Muertos.

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Frida Kahlo in “Coco”, quite strangely dawning a Tehuana dress.

It’s quite appropriate that the narrative leaves the barrio behind for the flashy colors of this flashy, glamorized representation of Dia de los Muertos. The irony of Miguel leaving the indigenous pyramids below the city to the celebrities built atop their ruins is not lost upon those who notice them.

With this movie, Disney has created a version of Dia de los Muertos that is rivaled by the back wall at Party City. They create a vision of rich, upper class figures and celebrities dancing atop the ruins of the traditions they’re built on below. An ironic representation of just who the film means to be enjoyed by, and just who will suffer in the aftermath.

Now, ultimately, does this mean it was a bad film?

No, I don’t think so. I think it’s a flawed film. It’s a watered down and occasionally distasteful representation of Mexican tradition. It portrays the grander, more mainstream version of Mexico that is easier for Americans and other people foreign to Mexican culture to digest. It is the film equivalent of a Schoolhouse Rock number talking about Dia de los Muertos with the same amount of simplification used to get the message across.

At its core, it’s what’s to be expected of an American film detailing a Mexican holiday with such a complicated history. Although many communities, my own included, look to its flashy colors through rose colored glasses, I can only hope that down the line, the red flags no longer blend in with the scenery.

Edited by Ricardo Biramontes

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