Building A Vibrant Bridge To Cultural Representation

With a well-deserved A+ CinemaScore, Disney*PIXAR’s Coco is the #1 movie in the U.S. and the highest grossing film in Mexican history! Audiences everywhere are taking to social media to shower the filmmakers with praise – and to lovingly complain a bit about all the tears shed during what is inarguably the most moving family film of the year.

D23 EXPO 2017 - Friday, July 14, 2017 - The Ultimate Disney Fan Event - brings together all the worlds of Disney under one roof for three packed days of presentations, pavilions, experiences, concerts, sneak peeks, shopping, and more. The event, which takes place July 14-16 at the Anaheim Convention Center, provides fans with unprecedented access to Disney films, television, games, theme parks, and celebrities. (Disney/Image Group LA) LEE UNKRICH, ADRIAN MOLINA, DARLA K. ANDERSON

When I saw Coco director Lee Unkrich, co-director and writer Adrian Molina, and producer Darla K. Anderson at D23 Expo, I couldn’t have even imagined that just a few months later, I’d be walking down a marigold carpet for the Coco Hollywood Premiere alongside them, let alone interview them during my latest Disney press event in Los Angeles.

We did too, shower them with Latino pride and did also joke about the fact that they like to make us bawl our eyes out.

I like making you feel something… said Director Lee Unkrich.

He explained that a movie that really sticks with you after you’ve seen it has the element of genuine emotion, which is what Disney/Pixar storytelling always does. But producer Darla K Anderson let us know it’s an exchange:

In order to feel all those feelings you had to go on a journey with all of our characters, and laugh with them and be on a big adventure with them, and become completely invested with them. We have to earn all of that emotion. It comes out of a multitude of the emotions from the movie.

The filmmakers of Coco made the film over the course of six years, becoming immersed in all things Mexico, to accurately represent the folklore and traditions of this culture they fell in love with. This didn’t come without challenges, as Adrian Molina explained:

It took a while to figure out, how do we invite people in, who aren’t familiar, without slowing down too much for the people who are… or coming off like it’s a school lesson…

Any non-Mexican who has seen Coco will tell you how emotional, stunning, and relatable the animated feature is, while Mexican audiences will rave about all the references that honor, celebrate, and represent Mexico in the most beautiful, authentic, and reverent way.

The filmmakers avoided the clichés and stereotypes of all past (and sad) attempts to represent what it means to be Mexican and – because of the subtle nods to not only indigenous, but also Spanish and African elements in the culture – what it means to be Latino.

I’ve seen the movie four times now – not enough, I know – and though we’ve all seen Mariachi suits, traditionally colorful bordados (embroidered) dresses and tops, tamales, traditional Mexican music, and even references of the Day of the Dead in other films, nothing comes even close to Disney/Pixar’s Coco.

When I took my daughters to see the Spanish version and the audience saw the  also see alebrijes (mythical spirit guides), papel picado decor, pan dulce (sweet bread), elotes (creamy corn), Oaxacan sculptures, the Mexican soccer jersey, characters singing folkloric ballads and dancing el zapateado, and the fiesty abuela throwing her chancleta, you could feel (and sometimes hear) the pride and joy in the movie theater.

And I have to say that it’s extremely hard for most bilingual people to actually enjoy a dubbed film – things literally get lost in translation! The filmmakers truly made a bilingual film that goes beyond the occasional spanglish “gordito” or “chamaco” or just by calling you grandmother “mamá” (which makes you teary if you lost your abuela). Both language versions of Coco are seamlessly masterful in getting the universal and heartfelt messages of family love across, while depicting the deep richness of the Mexican culture.

I know I’m over-the-top, but when I hear the word Coco, I see an-all-Latina-mom choir emerge from a bright spotlight inside my head singing a hymn of hope and joy that resonates with the words “our culture is being showcased!”

The Coco filmmakers are teaching Hollywood what cultural competence truly is about. The level of inclusion of Latino talent in the film, the investment in the production budget represent equality, and having the worldwide premiere at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City are tangible ways to honor a heartwarming story that is set in both Mexico and a fantastical land inspired by one of its most spiritually meaningful traditions: Día de Muertos.

It was non-negotiable (we were meeting these families and we were making these friends, and we were collaborating with artists all over Mexico) and the least we could do to pay homage to the beauty of the tradition and the place where they came from!   ~ Adrian Molina

COCO (Pictured) – IDOL CHATTER – In Disney•Pixar’s “Coco,” aspiring musician Miguel journeys through the Land of the Dead in search of his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz. Miguel meets the popular performer at Ernesto’s annual Día de Muertos party. Featuring Anthony Gonzalez as the voice of Miguel, and Benjamin Bratt as the voice of Ernesto de la Cruz, “Coco” opens in U.S. theaters on Nov. 22, 2017. ©2017 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

And speaking of arts, the dubbed version of Coco included legends like Marco Antonio Solís (from my childhood heroes, “Los Bukis”) who played charming Ernesto de la Cruz, Angélica Vale, who voices Mamá Imelda, and Angélica Maria, her mom, who plays Miguel’s chancleta-superstar abuelita. Gael García Bernal plays Héctor in both versions of the film (an example we can give our kids of the benefits of bilingualism).

But both versions of Coco represented the Mexican culture meticulously:

We were so immersed in our research for so many years that it’s inevitable that things would infuse their way into the film that we weren’t consciously trying to put there. That was the world we were living in and creating from.

But some of these moves were planned, to make Coco a timeless film that featured “caricatured cameos of well-known people” and to “harken back to a different age of Mexican cinema.”

We tried to fill the film with as many kind of famous Mexican celebrities as we could. Some of which we knew would be recognizable for general audiences, but some we knew would only be people who grew up in Mexico would know.  ~ Lee Unkrich

Pedro Infante  (Mexican singer and actor)  “Canta y no llores” anyone?

Jorge Negrete (Mexican singer and actor)

Cantinflas (Mexican comic, film actor, producer, and screenwriter)

Maria Felix (Mexican film actress and singer)

El Santo (Mexican luchador, actor, and folk icon)

Diego Rivera (prominent Mexican painter muralist)

Frida Khalo (Mexican folk art painter)

Esquivel! (Mexican band leader, pianist and composer) The Coco filmmakers want you to keep an eye out for “the guy in glasses who’s playing the glass harmonica before the talent show.”

The level of detail and the amount of love put into Coco are the forces behind the great success it’s enjoyed from all critics and all audiences.

We’ve heard the phrase “let’s build bridges, not walls,” when it comes to diversity, inclusion, and conscious representation. The Coco filmmakers have built a vibrant cempasúchil (marigold) covered bridge that joins the Land on the Living with the Land of the Dead and that symbolizes the joining of cultures, of people, of languages, to focus on our sameness, what makes us alike, what touches our collective hearts: love, dreams, and family.

The response has been very important to the Coco filmmakers, as Lee Unkrich put it:

It’s been very overwhelming in the most beautiful way, but it just felt like all we could do to say, “thank you so much for opening your hearts, opening the doors,” and a gesture on our part to say what a beautiful tradition, this is where it comes from everyone, take notice!

And I would add, “Hollywood, take notice!” because we need more films like Coco. Well, there will be no film LIKE Coco, but you know what I mean.

In the original story of Miguel in Coco, even the fictional elements have meaning. Darla K. Anderson asked Adrian Molina to tell us his “going off to college” story, which inspired the concept of Mama Imelda’s blessing in the Coco, as a rule to go back to the Land of the Living from the Land of the Dead.

When I was going off to art school. I had my car packed up, my dad gave me forty bucks to gas up the car on the drive down five to Cal Arts. As dads do. But before I left the house, they said “before you go, we just want to give you our blessing,” and I didn’t know what that meant.  I knelt down and { my mom and dad } said a little prayer over me, and said, “we love you, we support you, we know this is your first time going off on, on your own, and we want you to know that you have our blessing.”

There’s also a digital ofrenda at the end of the film involving Darla K. Anderson’s mom, Adrian Molina’s grandparents, Lee Unkrich’s grandmother, late Pixar animators, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Don Rickles and many other people in the Disney*Pixar family, so stay through the credits.

I think it will be very meaningful for them, and it’s very meaningful for us. It’s a very personal reflection of thanks to everyone who’s been there for us. ~ Lee Unkrich

There are also a few fun cameos in the film to look for:

Michael Giacchino is in the film.

Latino music consultant, Camilo Lara, plays the DJ at the party.

Adrian Molina says “What did I miss?” (You’ll love this part)

Adrian Molina says “the guitar, it’s gone”

And because the Coco filmmakers have embraced Dia de Muertos so respectfully, I’ll end on how they each want to be remembered:

Adrian Molina:

As someone who tried to use their art to make the world a better place.

Lee Unkrich:

I will say that. And I will add on to that the same thing I always tell my kids – somebody who was kind and fair.

Darla K. Anderson:

I will say that, it’s like dominos…  as a woman who had courage to learn how to find my voice, and to set an example for other, I’m always conscious of that in the world. If you’re in any kind of a public figure to set an example to find your voice and speak out loud about things that matter.

They certainly have done that. Thank you Coco filmmakers for your “love letter to Mexico,” for capturing the feelings of every immigrant’s heart, and for bringing accurate representation to the big screen! Coco will stick with you no matter where you come from!

How do you feel about diversity, inclusion, and cultural representation? These are topics I’m so passionate about and I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Make sure to follow along with me on social media using #PixarCocoEvent for more interviews with the Disney•Pixar’s “Coco” cast and filmmakers, as well as more from Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, #ABCTVEvent, and Big Hero 6 The Series. Check out http://movies.disney.com/coco, Hashtag: #PixarCoco, Pixar Coco Facebook, Pixar Coco Twitter and Pixar Coco Instagram, too!

Elayna Fernandez - Author - 
Speaker - Success Guide to Moms and Mompreneurs
© Elayna Fernández ~ The Positive MOM

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Interview and group photos by Silvia Martinez | Stills courtesy of Disney

20 thoughts on “Building A Vibrant Bridge To Cultural Representation

  1. Oh, I want to see this movie! I’ve seen the previews for it and I’m sure my kids would love it! I see a lot of similarities in the animation style to Moana, which I love as well.

  2. I feel like you’ve told me all about it and I’m ready to step into the theater. It is so wonderful that they made such a fun, positive movie from a culture not their own because they know we are as a country only going to become more as in our oneness.

  3. This is a movie that will teach kids to stop the divide. I love that there is so much to learn about another culture by watching an animated film. Thanks for sharing this article and your wonderful experience at the event.

  4. I love that, these movies will kids learn a lot! Especially cultural divide! My kids would love one of these movies!

  5. I just saw this movie last night and thought it was fantastic. Certain scenes you can just tell a lot of thought and planning went into it. What a talented group of people!

  6. I loved this movie for so many reasons …. as a child I never saw representation of my culture in children’s movies…. I never saw a child on the screen that looked like me….to share this heartwarming film with my son was a blessing….

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