Everybody’s loco about Pixar’s Coco, now the number one movie in the nation! The animated Dia de los Muertos tale raked in $71.2 million over the five-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend to claim the top spot. Latino families packed theaters in droves eager to see a positive representation of Mexicans on the big screen. And Coco delivered, from portraying a loving Mexican family to a hilarious chancla scene that almost didn’t happen.
In a departure from its highly secretive ways, Pixar brought in a trio of cultural consultants from the outside to help guide the film to its glory. Marcela Davison Aviles, longtime president of the Mexican Heritage Corporation, served as the lead adviser. Octavio Solis, the brilliant Bay Area playwright behind Lydia, came on board and even voiced a character in the film. But neither have gotten the heaping of hate from those deriding the Disney-backed film quite like legendary La Cucaracha political cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz.
The nationally syndicated Chicano-turned-consultant is the unlikeliest of the bunch. When Disney tried trademarking the phrase “Dia de los Muertos” in 2013 for the flood of merchandise to come after the film, Alcaraz responded with “Muerto Mouse.” The Weekly ran the rampaging spoof on the cover of our “Scariest People” issue that year dinging Disney for the move it quickly abandoned after a widespread outcry from Latinos online. Long before that image came “Migra Mouse,” a biting satire of Disney’s mascot that took the company to task for supporting California Governor Pete Wilson’s xenophobia-fueled reelection campaign in 1994.
And Pixar hired Alcaraz? Sure! It’s the best damn move the animation giant could have made to keep them honest during the project. “Armchair Aztec” naysayers aside, the proof is in the payoff with Coco quickly becoming Mexico’s highest grossing film ever before its big box-office debut in the United States.
With Alcaraz being a longtime friend of the show, the Weekly spoke with him about his role in the film.
Gabriel San Roman (OC Weekly): How did you first become involved with Coco as a cultural consultant, especially with you cartooning a critique of Disney’s past attempt to trademark “Dia de los Muertos?”
Lalo Alcaraz: It was about one year after the whole “Muerto Mouse” poster and trademark controversy happened. Marcela Davison Aviles, a Chicana consultant whose team I joined, was the one who had the idea to suggest to Pixar to get me on board. I’ll take any meeting in Hollywood because you never know. We met at Morton’s Steakhouse and I told them it was my birthday, but it had been the day before! I heard producer Darla Anderson out about what they were doing making sure the film was appropriate. They didn’t want to culturally appropriate or make a mishmash, either. They’re Bay Area liberals, not Hollywood liberals. I wanted to know if they’d actually listen to what I’d have to say if brought on board. I’ll say what the truth is. I also asked if they were going to have “brown facing.” They said, “no, absolutely not.” It all paid off and panned out.
What does a cultural consultant do on a huge film like Coco? Starting out, I don’t think Pixar had much of an idea either, because it was a first for them, too!
It was the first time they had any outsiders come in to be in on the project. Flying us out to an audience test, that was a first. They’ve never done that. There’s a lot of “firsts” on this project. I begged them to let me shadow the animators one day, just as an animation nerd. It took months and months for them to agree to it. That was a first. But what a consultant does is have input and be another set of eyes. We’d go to screenings in Emeryville, take notes and discuss. We’d give input on the music, dialogue and look of the film. Pixar does their research on whatever subject they do a film on. They were already most of the way there on their own. But I felt like there were certain cultural things that we brought up that stayed in the film like the chancla. Originally, the abuela had a spoon she used as a weapon. I’m tired of chancla jokes and memes but this had to be in the movie. And the Rivera family are shoemakers! [laughs] C’mon!
Coco is a film whose time had long come. Maybe this will be surprising information for some folks, but where did you first hear that attendance at Anaheim’s Disney theme parks is half-Latino?
I was in a meeting with the Imagineers. We also consulted on the theme park promotion. All the Coco events at California Adventure, we saw that first and gave notes. I never got to see Ramon’s Garage at Cars Land being done up in Dia de los Muertos style but they ran that by me and I gave input. We were talking with Imagineers and park people. One of them did mention that half of the park visitors are Latino. I can testify to that because we used to be pass holders. All my comadres all have yearly passes! It’s all working and middle class people, but they figure out a way. That stat blew me away and also the fact that almost 25 percent of the ticket-buying movie audience in the U.S. is Latino. It makes me laugh that some people are sad that Coco is a success or can’t really criticize the story and ask where’s the money is going to. All these years, we’ve been buying a quarter of the movie tickets, we didn’t care where the money was going to. But now because Coco, it’s a problem.
You had the opportunity to see audiences in Mexico City and New York City react to the film after its debut. What can you say about how it played out in Mexico versus how it’s being received in the U.S.?
I did get to see the film in Mexico for the premiere. It wasn’t at a chain theater. It was at the Palacio de Bellas Artes and it was a benefit for an indigenous community’s music program. Regular people could buy the tickets and be in the rafters where we were. I heard the Mexicano audience laughing, crying and gasping. They loved it. That was just a hint of what happened because it was like a mania. It’s kind of being matched here judging by my feed and all the families sending me photos of them at the movies. They reacted exactly the same. They cried at the same times. Now, if you’re bilingual and lucky enough to be able to understand it in both languages, it’s a different experience to watch it in Spanish and English. In the English version, we tried to stick in as much Spanish as we could. We said, “Just don’t translate the Spanish. Don’t do ‘hermano, my brother!’ like all the 80’s and 90’s Chicano movies.” Basically, it’s a Chicano screenplay. The dialogue has a lot of code switching. It’s just enough to let you know that these are Mexicans. That’s how I like it. That’s how I write.
You’ve been asking movie goers to stay after the end credits. What awaits them and how personal does it make Coco for you?
Pixar asked everybody involved in the film to submit, if they wanted to, a picture of their antepasados, their dearly departed ancestors. In my case, I submitted a photo of my mom and her sister, my tia, in this classic pose. It was of them back in San Diego at the apartment where I grew up, just on the railings having a nice, sunny afternoon. It’s too small to actually see, but they’re both up there. I just wanted people to know that I was really excited about having my mom be immortalized in this film that’s going to last for a long, long time. I know she would be walking around saying “I’m a movie star.” That’s how she was. Now you see where I got it from.