Video: ‘Coco’ dodges pitfalls and tops the pops at Mexican box office

Pixar says it’s dealing with the issues raised by John Lasseter’s inappropriate conduct

Coco, the 19th feature film from Pixar, is set during the Day of the Dead, when, according to Mexican tradition, the dearly departed can temporarily return to a more corporeal plane. A young boy named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) bucks the trend by crossing over to the Land of the Dead, where he hopes to track down his musical idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).

This metaphysical odyssey could easily have resulted in accusations of cultural appropriation. Instead, it’s the biggest box office hit in Mexican history, where it has grossed $57,767,514 to date. And it’s rated as 97 per cent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

"I remember the day that I pitched this to the executives at Pixar," says Coco director Lee Unkrich. "And when they were on board and excited about the idea, I was happy. But at the same time I felt a crushing weight. Oh my gosh. We really have to tell this story authentically. It took us some time to figure out the right thing to do. But we cared about it from the very beginning. We always knew we wanted an all-Latino cast. We did extensive research down in Mexico, as much as we could. We also knew we needed a board of advisors to have on the journey with us. And for them to be a part of making the film in a way that has never occurred before. We had a core group of advisors who saw the production regularly and weighed in with their thoughts and cautioned about some things and got excited about other things. It was a long process over the six years."

‘Cradled’

It helped, too, that Unkrich's co-director, Adrian Molina, is of Mexican descent. "[Adrian's] mom was born in Mexico so that was helpful," notes Darla K Anderson, the film's producer. "Lots of people in key positions on our film were Latino or of Mexican descent. This collective cradled this movie and made sure it was as true as possible."

READ MORE

Unkrich and Anderson had previously worked together on Toy Story 3. At the time, the pair thought they were completing a trilogy. Within two years, John Lasseter, the co-founder of Pixar, announced Toy Story 4 during a Disney investors' call.

"It wasn't a surprise because we're all at the studio so we know what's going on," says Unkrich. "But yeah. When we made Toy Story 3 we tried to put a nice ending to this trilogy. But we also knew that the characters had a life beyond that trilogy. And that we had the potential to tell stories that were separate from Andy."

Both Unkrich and Anderson are excited for Toy Story 4, which is scheduled for a 2019 release.

"It's exciting to see the team with Josh Cooley directing," says Unkrich. "It's been fun seeing where they are taking the story."

Personnel changes

The same production has undergone various personnel changes. Last November, studio head John Lasseter, who was originally due to direct Toy Story 4, took a leave of absence due to allegations of inappropriate conduct with women. His announcement coincided with reports that screenwriter Rashida Jones and her collaborator Will McCormack had left Toy Story 4 after Lasseter made an "unwanted advance" on Jones.

Jones and McCormack later released a statement criticising Pixar’s greater issues of representation, characterising the animation house as “a culture where women and people of colour do not have an equal creative voice”.

I wonder if the current, larger discourse about representation has made an impact on the studio? Have there been in-house conversations? Is there a policy document?

“There’s not a policy document,” says Anderson. “But for years we’ve been having this conversation and it’s been important to us, especially women and people of colour and LGBTQX. And Pixar has absolutely embraced – in a beautiful way – all these discussions. We need more diversity. Both on the screen and behind the camera.”

Coco is on general release