Disney-Pixar's latest animated feature film "Coco" opens in the United States this week on the heels of record breaking success in Mexico and positive reviews at advance screenings nationwide. Hollywood's El Capitan Theatre is having a special presentation of the film from the Nov. 22 to 26 featuring the Mariachi Divas performing on stage with Ballet Folkorico Los Angeles.
San Fernando's student musicians from the Mariachi Master Apprentice Program and Ballet Folklorico Ollin performed on opening day at the Winnetka Theaters.
"Coco" is the story of 12 year-old Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), an aspiring young musician. Miguel aspires to be like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), but his family has placed a generations-long ban on music. After a mysterious chain of events, Miguel finds himself in the Land of the Dead, and begins to unravel the mystery behind his family's history.
"Coco" takes place in Mexico, and Disney telling a non-European or American narrative is significant. In Disney's 79 year history of animated feature films only three take place in Latin America, and of those three movies only one, 1944's The Three Caballeros, take place in Mexico.
Three Caballeros and its predecessor, 1942's Saludos Amigos, were told from the outsider's perspective starring Donald Duck traveling across Latin America and experiencing its natural wonders and exotic culture with his friends, Jose Carioca the Brazillian parrot and Panchito Pistoles the Mexican rooster.
What "Coco" strives to do differently is tell the a story from within the culture, focusing on a rural family and the life they live, and the afterlife that comes with it, from their perspective, rather than present a traveler's take on the culture or showing off the landmarks and the picture book idea of what the country is about.
The team behind "Coco" traveled out to Mexico and spent six years learning and experiencing the culture firsthand, and have been making a very conscious effort to represent Mexican culture truthfully and respectfully. Director Lee Unkrich has been very vocal about his desire to create a film that resonates with Mexican and Latino communities, saying “We hope that our audience and those communities feel like we got it right.”
"Coco" is not the first animated feature film to center around Dia de los Muertos. "Book of Life" directed by Jorge Gutierrez, who prior to created the Nickelodeon cartoon "El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Riverra," fought for his film to be released. Book of Life was in development since 2007, originally undergoing development at Dreamworks. After facing “creative differences”, Gutierrez took the film to the animation studio Reel FX with 20th Century Fox handling distribution rights. Book of Life was finally released in 2014, and June of this year a planned sequel has been announced.
Some have taken to calling "Coco" a rip-off or a copy of the Book of Life due to its similarity in themes and narratives, but this could not be farther from the truth. If there is room for the endless annual deluge of animated Christmas movies and television specials, there is certainly plenty of room for more movies embracing and properly celebration the holidays from all cultures. “The respect and care that was put into "Coco" makes my heart sing..” Gutierrez said on twitter, “Hopefully Hollywood can learn that a film like this is not only profitable but universally embraced and loved.”
To say that only one movie or even one filmmaker has ownership of Dia de Los Muertos undersells the vast number of rich stories that can be told from within Mexican and Latino communities. With the unprecedented amount of marketing and exposure never seen before for a Latino themed film, "Coco" stands to prove there is a real yearning and desire for more stories about the people and families that are neglected in mainstream American media. The greatest thing "Coco" can do is open the door for more Mexican and Latino culture on screen, if not just to give the actors an opportunity to perform, but for more stories for us to be told, and hopefully actually to be told by us.