This past Wednesday, the news hit: Pixar Animation’s Coco unseated The Avengers to be the highest grossing movie of all time in Mexico. For those not in the know, Coco tells the story of a young boy named Miguel who wishes to pursue his dream of becoming a musician, but due to an old family ban he’s forbidden from doing so. But in the middle of Día de Muertos (“Day of the Dead”), he finds himself suddenly transported to the Land of the Dead. He now has to find his way back home… but not before discovering more about his family and where he came from.
Coco screened widely within Mexico prior to its domestic release. It’s an unusual tactic, as anyone within the industry can tell you that movies produced within the US almost always screen domestically before heading to foreign markets. Releasing the movie in Mexico first, though, caps off a production that has at every step emphasized a complete and accurate portrayal of Mexican culture, especially Día de Muertos, and shows off the utility of reaching across cultures in business.
It’d be easy to make a story about Día de Muertos: you thrown in some skeletons, colorful skulls, generic festivities. All you have to do is pick whatever main plot you want and there you go. It takes effort, though, to make a story that understands Día de Muertos, especially if you come from outside that culture and ethnicity. It takes effort, no matter how small, to know that the colorful skulls, the calaveras de azucar, are not meant to be viewed as macabre but rather as joyful. It takes effort to really understand the themes of the holiday: it’s not about mourning the dead, but celebrating the life that people lived and keeping them in memory.
Disney and Pixar put in that effort. Co-director Adrian Molina remarked that “We knew from the early stages that in creating this film, accompanying it was this huge responsibility to represent it faithfully — to get the culture right — and to be very thoughtful in being stewards of what the celebration is.” Now much has been said in the past about the extent that Pixar’s research teams will go to in order to find the tiniest little details to be that much more accurate in their depiction of real world places, things, or even concepts. And just as Molina said, they took an extra step of not just understanding the holiday, but even going so far as to explore how it’s celebrated differently in different regions of Mexico. In the words of Gael Garcia Bernal, it’s “a very heterogeneous, generous festival.” This doesn’t even start getting into casting, where nearly everyone cast is Latino and thus giving an extra edge of authenticity to the whole production.
Of course this is all fine and well from a social justice perspective, but does it make any business sense? To answer that, I’d point you back to the beginning of this post: the top grossing movie of all time in Mexico. As of this Thursday Coco's brought in $43.1 million, 827 million pesos, and that number’s only climbing. Critics and audiences are singing its praises as one of Pixar’s better works.
And so I circle back to what I said before: it would have been easy to make a story about Día de Muertos. However, Pixar took the time to truly understand the holiday, to explore the themes that it celebrates, and then build the story around those themes. In doing so they’ve made a GREAT story about Día de Muertos. It's something special and, so far, successful. It goes to show that taking that extra step to understand something more fully can make a world of difference.