Coco, Pixar’s new movie about the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico, is full of the stereotypes Hollywood has been falling back on for decades to represent the US’s southern neighbor. There’s the usual deluge of color, festive music, and archetypes such as the flipflop-tossing matriarch—all rendered in the studio’s masterful animation.
But unlike many other popular culture depictions of Mexico in the US, Coco’s creators appear to be looking up to the country in awe, not down on it.
Their loving vision is a welcome respite at a time when many Americans, including their president, see Mexico as being so dangerous and undesirable that it warrants blocking it off with a wall.
There is no Donald Trump in Coco’s world. There isn’t even a US. In it, Mexico is unapologetically the center of the universe, not the villain or the token minority sidekick. Its creators peppered the English version with Spanish phrases, and filled it with obscure cultural references that will go over the heads of many American viewers.
It’s a present for Mexican Americans, whose culture hardly ever gets to be center stage—and for the Mexican government, which has been trying to counteract Trump’s toxic rhetoric. Many Americans wouldn’t normally choose to sit through a 2-hour pitch of how wonderful Mexico is. This being Pixar, they’re going to pay to see it, probably in droves.
The story centers around Miguel, a kid from a small town who wants to be a musician. His family, however, has a strict ban on instruments and songs after his great, great-grandfather left his wife and daughter to pursue his musical dreams. The action happens on día de muertos, the only day of the year when the deceased leave their world to visit their living relatives. Miguel ends up accidentally making the trip in the opposite direction, where after many adventures, he learns the value of family.
Pixar’s land of the dead is an ode to Mexico, from its ancient pyramids to current-day Mexico City. Its creators were methodical about getting the details right. They also seemed to have a checklist of every single Mexican cultural icon and landmark. Painter Frida Kahlo, as well as lesser known actor Pedro Infante make an appearance. There’s a multitude of alebrijes, fantastical animals, and one very cute hairless Mexican dog. They include cenotes, reminiscent of the Yucatan in the south and the Norteña music of the north.
After a while, Coco can begin to look like a Pixar version of the Mexican government’s “Visit Mexico” campaign. There’s nothing wrong with that. If more Americans were familiar with Mexico, they would perhaps be less prone to buy the simplistic representation of the country and its people that their president is selling.