The Social Value of Pixar’s ‘Coco’

The following is a guest post by Aldo Gomez.

Last week on Sunday, March 4, the Disney Pixar animated film Coco won the Oscar for best animated film and had it been any other year, I would be the cynical critic talking about how the animated category is never taken seriously and Disney will take that Oscar home 9 times out of 10, but not this time. Coco means something different and is more powerful than the average Disney/Pixar movie and wholeheartedly deserves the award and praise it has received. And while I would love to write a 20-page thesis on this, I will only be writing about how this film affected me in a way no other film has.

I need to be transparent in writing this piece. I am a Mexican American, brought to the United States more than 20 years ago by my parents and separated from my extended family and friends, so to say that Coco hits specially home to me is an understatement.

Coco is a film about a young boy named Miguel, a child within a family that has banned all forms of music from their household, but he believes that music is in his blood and that this stems from his great-great-grandfather who left his family for a music career. In order to prove this, Miguel ends up in the Land of the Dead, meets his ancestors, and tries to return to the land of living, but things don’t go exactly to plan.

As a youth, I didn’t think that I was ever at a loss for Hispanic role models, George Lopez was a successful comedian in the United States and before him was Erik Estrada in the TV series “CHiPs”, but as I kept watching the silver screen, I began to realize that a lot of the Hispanic roles were typically gangsters, otherwise known as cholos, and comedic side characters.

There were odd exceptions like most of Edward James Olmos’ parts and Ritchie Valens, I guess. Mexico had its own golden and silver age of cinema so it never felt like there was a need for Mexican actors to cross over to Hollywood, but the late 2000’s proved otherwise as actors like Eugenio Derbez and Kate del Castillo started releasing independent films in the United States, those were movies about being illegal immigrants and the struggles related to leaving your family behind and while I relate to those stories, there wasn’t much wide appeal.

Enter the 2014 film produced by (now academy award winner) Guillermo del Toro, Book of Life. Written and directed by a Mexican but having a sterilized view of Mexican culture as well as its largely white and American cast felt less than genuine. During that time, we also had Mexican directors Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro G. Iñarritu not only being recognized, but also winning Best Director Oscars. Even then, their achievements strayed from Mexican culture; the message was clear and it was that Mexican culture couldn’t sell.

Then the 2016 elections happened and the narrative for Mexicans changed when Donald Trump became president. To keep it as apolitical and succinct as possible, all that needs to be said is that Mexican immigrants were labeled in very unkind terms. Disney had already canceled their announced Jack and the Beanstalk project and it seemed like the recently announced Coco could also be on the chopping block. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

Coco is set on the eve of the Day of the Dead and starts out in the beaten streets of a small Mexican village telling the backstory with cutouts on bright colorful papers hung up in the streets. This is the moment I knew that this film was what I had been missing. Those paper cutouts are the same ones that my family and I had spent hours cutting out a few weeks earlier as we had prepared our own altar for our family. The music in Coco wasn’t just Mexican inspired, it was actual traditional Mexican music and characters like Ernesto de la Cruz were fictional analogues to real musicians like Pedro Infante.

The cast of the film is primarily Hispanic with actors from Mexican cinema and soap operas and Hollywood actors alike, but that’s only the English version of the film. In my local theaters I saw Spanish language screenings of the film and that cast doesn’t include just Mexican voice actors but Mexican A-list actors and musicians as well, which is highly uncommon.

The culture was never the butt of the joke in the film, gangs and crime were not the focus of the film, and there were plenty of references to Mexican golden age cinema in the film.

I laughed, cried, and gasped as I saw the film, which has a bit of a predictable story, but my culture was presented in one of the most earnest and respectful manners that I had ever witnessed on the big screen. The Day of the Dead was shown for what it really is and not as a Mexican Halloween, even if the film did leave out the more somber Day of the Innocents and the big loud parades of the day celebrations.

Coco proved that in a time where Mexican immigrants are being labeled as rapists and murderers, when youths are threatened to be separated from their home and family, that Mexican culture and its people belong in the United States and they belong in Hollywood. Watching Coco, for me, is probably what many other people felt when they watched Black Panther on the big screen. These films and their representation is important to a lot of people in the U.S. and in the world and Disney/Pixar are showing that they are wanted.