The Thanksgiving holiday means family-friendly films are heading to theaters, a tradition like turkey and stuffing, that is baked into the holiday—think of films like “Moana,” “The Good Dinosaur” and “Frozen.”
This week, Walt Disney Co. DIS, -0.10% will release a first of its kind in Pixar film, “Coco.”
The film, exploring the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), follows 12-year-old Miguel who finds himself in a vibrant land of the dead after setting off a mysterious chain of events while trying to prove his musical talent to his family.
While trapped there, Miguel sets off on a journey that reveals the true story of his family history.
“Coco” is Pixar’s first feature-length film to feature a minority character as the lead, and boasts a nearly all-Latino cast that includes Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Edward James Olmos, and Anthony Gonzalez as the voice of Miguel.
The film is already Mexico’s highest-grossing film ever after debuting Oct. 27, taking in $41.4 million so far. It opens in the U.S. on Nov. 22, and is expected to earn $60 million at the box office in its opening weekend, according to analysts at Box Office Pro.
“Visually, the film is arresting,” said Elizabeth Barrutia, founder and chief executive of Barú, which advises Hollywood studios on connecting with Hispanic, African-American and Asian audiences.
The film has a 95% rating on critical review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
Barrutia and her company didn’t have a role on “Coco,” though they have advised Disney on other films, and she says she wishes they could have been involved.
Barrutia, who is Latina, said that the success of a film like “Coco,” one that represents and speaks to her and her son’s culture, is invaluable.
“Coco” seamlessly weaves Spanish into its majority English dialogue. Barrutia said that when she took her son, whom she is trying to raise in a bilingual household, to a screening at one point he turned and asked to use the restroom in Spanish.
“That’s when I truly knew how important this film was,” she said. “It’s hard to raise a kid in a bilingual household when he goes to school with kids who speak English. But he saw himself reflected on the screen in a character who looks very much like him.
“We don’t have enough films like this.”
The Hispanic movie-going public is a significant market for Hollywood. Hispanic audiences, the second largest in the country, accounted for 23% of all moviegoers in the U.S. in 2016, despite accounting for just 18% of the population, according to the National Association of Theater Owners.
“Coco” feels authentic, and respectful of Mexican culture, said Erik Davis, managing editor at Comcast Corp.-owned CMCSA, -1.48% Fandango. Pixar did, however, have its hurdles.
In 2013, during the development stages of “Coco,” Disney filed to trademark “Dia de los Muertos” to protect the then title of the film and related licensing. That did not go over well with the public, and elicited a strong backlash from the Latino community.
The studio stepped back and sought advice on Latino culture, anxious to avoid the whitewashing, or appropriation controversy that has negatively impacted recent films, such as Paramount Pictures’ “Ghost in the Shell.” Barrutia said Disney handled the backlash well.
“The film does a marvelous job of translating Dia de los Muertos,” she said. “Disney honors the tradition so respectfully, but also opened it up for a broader audience with a universal film that everyone can relate to and understand.”
It’s a Mexican family at the center of “Coco,” but Barrutia and Davis said the themes of family, tradition and dealing with loss are ones that audiences unfamiliar with the culture will be drawn to.
“Coco” is also coming at a time where there are not a lot of family films in theaters, which Davis said should give it a boost.
“It makes topics that are kind of hard for parents to talk about with their kids, like death, a bit easier to approach,” Davis said. “I think it’s cool that the kinds of conversations families will have from ‘Coco’ are kids asking about their family history.”
When Pixar makes a movie, they’re ultimately striving to reach everyone, Davis noted.
The success of “Coco” could, Barrutia hopes, go a long way toward encouraging more minority-driven, and specifically Hispanic-centric films.
Hollywood has made inclusion and diversity one of its missions recently, but Barrutia said that casting Latino actors and actresses, and having those voices included in the creation and decision-making processes are still issues.
“Even though [director Lee Unkrich] and [producer Darla Anderson] aren’t Latino, they listened and sought advice, and even promoted Adrian Molina from screenwriter to co-director to make sure it was authentic,” Barrutia said. “That’s what every studio needs to do — and for every project — in order to fully address the business opportunity.”