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Actors Anthony Gonzalez (L) and Benjamin Bratt arrive at the premiere of Disney Pixar’s “Coco” at the El Capitan Theatre on November 8, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
The timing couldn’t be better, says San Francisco-born actor Benjamin Bratt, who voices a key character. He believes “Coco” is an uplifting counterpoint to Trump’s fervent anti-immigrant stances.
“I don’t want to politicize the film. It’s a pure piece of entertainment,” says Bratt, whose mother is originally from Peru. “But considering all the divisive rhetoric coming out of Washington and all the talk of building a wall, this film is a bridge toward a more prosperous and positive outcome.”
“Coco” tells the story of 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a Mexican boy who dreams of becoming a famous musician like his late idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Bratt). But his shoe-making family strictly forbids it.
When Miguel defies his parents and tries to perform in a local talent show during Día de los Muertos festivities, he triggers a wild chain of events that whisks him to the netherworld. It’s a fantastical, vibrantly colorful realm populated with the walking, talking skeletons of people who passed away long ago, including his ancestors.
There, Miguel discovers long-buried secrets about his heritage and learns the importance of familial bonds.
“Coco” breaks new ground as the first Pixar film dedicated entirely to a foreign culture. That produces certain risks, especially when it comes to Latino representation, which throughout cinematic history has been marred by an abundance of offensive stereotypes and inane missteps.
Disney made a blunder of its own in 2013 when it tried to trademark the phrase “Día de los Muertos” across multiple platforms.
The move provoked a harsh backlash from the Latino community, including Bay Area political cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz. He created a poster adorned with a giant, vicious skeletal mouse and claimed Disney was coming to “trademark your cultura.”
The controversy, however, had a positive payoff. Disney quickly pulled the trademark request and Pixar reached out to the Latino community, including Alcaraz, for support. A team of cultural consultants was formed as authenticity became a driving force during the production of “Coco.”
Adrian Molina, a Mexican-American who grew up in Grass Valley, was a co-director and writer on the project. He points out that Pixar not only leaned heavily on the consultants, but made several research field trips to Mexico.
The resulting attention to detail in the film is obvious — from the depiction of ofrendas (private altars) and abundance of vibrant Aztec marigolds, to the authentic architecture, traditional Mexican music and more.
“We wanted a representation that was nuanced and truthful. Every decision was thoughtfully done,” Molina says. “It was vitally important to get it right and pay respect.”
Audiences and critics, of course, will have their say, but Bratt is thrilled with the results. “I take a lot of pride in the fact that Latino culture is central to the story. That makes it all the more special,” he says. “This is really the first time I’ve seen the story of us — full of beautiful brown faces — on a stage this grand. It’s exciting.”
“Coco” already reigns as the highest-grossing film ever in Mexico, where it opened in late October in time for Día de los Muertos.
It was given a coveted holiday-week release date in the U.S., and Pixar-Disney is confident it can generate similar success here and elsewhere, largely because the universal theme of family ties — past and present — is so central to both the holiday and the story.
“I think that will resonate with a lot of people,” Molina says. “Our family shapes who we are. And I love that sense of duty and obligation to remember the people who came before you. That’s a really beautiful thing.”
And what if Trump could see the film? Would it have any effect on him?
“One of the powerful things about storytelling is that it can allow you to find empathy with someone who is different than us,” Molina says. “It can open your heart to that person, that world and that culture.”
Contact Chuck Barney at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/chuckbarney and Facebook.com/bayareanewsgroup.chuckbarney.
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Renée Victor
Director: Lee Unkrich
When: Opens Nov. 22 nationwide