How 'Coco' Turned From Controversial to Respectful of Mexican Culture

Coco - FAMILY REUNION - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Disney•Pixar

After an early Disney misstep stirred protest in the SoCal Latino community, filmmakers turned to L.A. experts on Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday at the heart of the Pixar film.

When Pixar decided in 2013 to make a movie themed to the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, the title was Dia de los Muertos. Owner Disney even applied to trademark the phrase — a move met by an outcry in the Latino community, led by Lalo Alcaraz, author of syndicated comic strip Las Cucarachas. L.A. Theatre Center's Evelina Fernandez and others added their voices, and Disney soon dropped the bid.

In the wake of the controversy, Pixar recruited a range of experts to consult on Coco, as the film was renamed — led by Alcaraz and playwright Octavio Solis, and including Luis Valdez (founder of Teatro Campesino), Fernandez, and altaristas (master altar makers) Ofelia and Rosanna Esparza who honed their skills at Boyle Heights' Self Help Graphics & Art, which for 44 years has hosted L.A.'s largest Dia celebration, perhaps the oldest such event in the U.S., (set for Nov. 4). In meetings with co-directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina as well as studio execs, consultants were shown an early mock-up with animated storyboards and later something closer to the completed movie. "I was like, 'What are we getting into and do I want my name on it?' " says Rosanna. But in the end, "it was a great experience." Fernandez was shocked just to be invited into the process. "People make movies about us all the time and don't even bother to ask," she says.

Unkrich says screening an unfinished film to outside groups was "unprecedented for us as a studio" but vital "to get their unfiltered, honest reactions … There were notes that kept us headed to true north." Fernandez saw some of her music suggestions incorporated. Ofelia, an expert in Dia traditions, praises the treatment of the notion of three deaths. Critics also have praised Coco, which marks "an important step" in Hollywood, where representation of Latinos lags, says Fernandez. "For once our story is being told respectfully and shows our culture in a beautiful way."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.