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Feature FilmIdeas/CommentaryPixar

‘Coco’ Director Lee Unkrich Doesn’t Understand Why Some People Are ‘Threatened’ By His Film

Corporations and culture mix about as well as oil and water, which is something that Pixar director Lee Unkrich, the director of Pixar’s upcoming Coco, is learning the hard way.

The film editor-turned-director took to Twitter last night to ask a question that’s apparently been bugging him (Update: Unkrich deleted the tweet after we published this story, so a screenshot of the tweet is shown below):

Lee Unkrich tweet.

Disney-Pixar directors are notoriously tight-lipped about their personal feelings and shy about controversy prior to a film’s release, so it is nothing short of remarkable that Unkrich is asking his followers on Twitter why his film is being compared unfavorably to an animated film that was released three years earlier.

His question elicited dozens of responses, with Twitter users offering numerous theories:

The question even garnered a response from The Book of Life director Jorge Gutierrez, who is friendly with Unkrich and has expressed support for Coco in the past.

Sadly for Unkrich, the film’s reputation may have been irreparably tainted for reasons beyond his control — and by the very people who are paying to make the film: the Walt Disney Company.

Disney’s remarkable misstep happened in 2013 when overzealous Disney lawyers filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to trademark “Día de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead), in an attempt to control the sales of Day of the Dead products related to “education and entertainment services,” “fruit preserves; fruit-based snack foods,” “toys, games and playthings,” “clothing,” “footwear,” “backpacks,” and “clocks and jewelry.”

Lee Unkrich.
Lee Unkrich.

Even after Disney withdrew the trademark application, many Mexicans continued to view the project with skepticism — a shady attempt by gringos to plunder their country’s cultural and religious holiday for profit. The Disney marketing machine has been working overtime ever since trying to reverse the public relations nightmare, going so far as to hire one of its harshest Mexican-American critics as a consultant on Coco.

Disney has even crafted a marketing plan aimed at Mexican and Latin audiences that diminishes Unkrich’s own involvement, while hyping the contributions of the Latinx artists who contributed to Coco’s production. Early publicity in Mexican and Latin media, like this recent piece, doesn’t even mention Unkrich in the body of the text, instead focusing on the film’s Mexican-American co-director Adrian Molina and interviewing other Mexican artists who worked on the film, like Alonso Martinez.

Disney’s trademark attempt was “a mistake that happened and we regretted it immediately,” Unkrich told the LA Times earlier this year, further adding in an interview with Vanity Fair that it was “personally devastating.”

In a final attempt to mollify Mexican audiences, Disney is launching the film in Mexico prior to its U.S. release on November 22. Coco will world premiere at Mexico’s Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia on October 20, 2017, followed by a nationwide Mexican release on October 27, in time for the Día de Muertos holiday.

Looking at it through this lens, the grassroots support for The Book of Life over Coco may simply be another manifestation of people’s resentment toward Disney about their attempt to trademark a Mexican holiday, as well as lingering questions about Disney’s motives for making such a film in the first place.

Compare this situation to Dreamworks, which was able to create a franchise like Kung Fu Panda, and have it be a huge success in both the U.S. and abroad, including China, where the film is set. In fact, the franchise was so popular with Chinese moviegoers that it angered that country’s government officials, prompting them to question why an American film that dabbled on the edges of Chinese culture was more successful than actual Chinese films made by Chinese people about Chinese culture?

Further, Kung Fu Panda didn’t suffer any of Coco’s scrutiny or criticisms for cultural authenticity. In fact, Mark Osborne, co-director of the original Kung Fu Panda, joked not so long ago that to research the film, “we just Googled China.”

The difference might be that Kung Fu Panda was simply a film set in China, while Disney-Pixar’s Coco cannot escape the seeming perception that it will be the definitive animated film about Mexico. A big part of that perception may have to do with the film’s focus on such an intensely personal, family-oriented holiday like Day of the Dead.

Had Pixar decided to make a film that starred Mexican characters without the trappings of Día de Muertos, there would have likely been little controversy, but the studio has hinged the entire success of its film on being an authentic representation of Mexican families celebrating a sacred holiday, something that a non-Mexican director would have been wise to avoid attempting.

It’s led to a cycle that may prove unwinnable for Disney, where Unkrich is struggling to convince viewers of his intentions and openly questioning why people don’t like his film. He has even gone so far as to describe the film as a “a love letter to Mexico.” The question remains though whether Mexico will love him back.

  • Twitter user “TheVoiceGamePlay” hands down had the best straight forward response to Unkrich. And the depressing part of it is that it’s very much true and it’s a damn shame.

    A part of me still wants to give Coco a chance but at the same time, having someone like Disney to put a huge unrelated cash grab (AKA Hungry for more Frozen!?) in front of a movie that explores deep inside a culture/holiday that barely everyone in the U.S. or any other country for that matter know so little about really turns me off from ever wanting to go see it. Then again, we pretty much all know the real reason of why Disney made that decision.

  • natef

    “Had Pixar decided to make a film that starred Mexican characters, there would have likely been little controversy”

    Funny. This film does star Mexican characters.

    • AmidAmidi

      Yea, that sentence didn’t properly express the point I was trying to make. It’s edited to read” “Mexican characters without the trappings of Día de Muertos…”

    • Isaac TV

      Yeah, seems like it’s just a trend these days to make up controversies over nothing. Can’t enjoy a damn Pixar cartoon anymore without someone reaching way too deep for hidden intentions that resemble cultural appropriation…

  • Troy

    Probably because people assume Coco is another retelling of the same story that was told in the Book of Life and Disney just wasted production time when they should be working on “original” content. If the Day of the Dead is common as Halloween or Christmas films that is produced every single week on a month, MAYBE that would warrant those concerns, but as far as I know there is like exactly how many films that portrays it?

  • Arp

    For me it’s having another guitar-playing protagonist who travels into the Land of the Dead like BoL. That and the bad taste left from trying to copyright ‘Day of the Dead’.

    I recently read Raina Telgemeier’s ‘Ghosts’ and it’s a great Day of the Dead-oriented story. It does have a guitar playing guy in it but not the protagonist. Quite an original story too, would love to see it animated (2d hand-drawn style, preferably).

    • Alec Fredericks

      Hah. I’ll have to read ‘Ghosts.’ My 7 & 10 year-old daughters read the heck out of that and I had no idea it was a Day of the Dead story. Or maybe they can read it to me… :)

      • Arp

        I had no idea what it was about at first, I just binged on all of her books recently. I loved them and can see why she’s so popular. Her storytelling is so honest.

  • Elsi Pote

    That was so plain embarrasing that I only feel pitty for Lee.

    Is he and eveyone at Pixar that oblivious of what is happening in America right now? Or how the heck you tackle project you seem not to understand and only expect people to take at face value? Geez I thought he was more thick skinned by now being a seasoned director and whatnot.

    Don’t they know what many Mexican families living in the US will go through in the following weeks, or is their bubble immune to the President’s tweets and mandates? Because I don’t know you, but I would be pissed at people that claims I took their jobs when I didn’t while others take the same culture that makes me who I am just to make a quick buck through emotion manipulation.

    Don’t they realize that every white washed movie that comes out only antagonizes the fan base and accomplishes nothing? How many times does this has to happen for someone finally get it? Where is the so called empathy for the audiece? Where the heck is the costumer is always right?

    Triying to compare dia de los muertos with Christmas just to make sense of the situation was so plain stupid as ignoring that many Mexicsns spend Christmas eve at the cementeries with their loved ones and those who pased away. Give me a break, what the birth of Jesus Christ or a miracle in 34th street has to do with this?

    And please don’t be so naive, this so called espontaneus question by Lee is nothing but a quick way for Disney to gsther the data they need to turn things around as the Olaf short announcement did very little in generating any buzz for Coco.

    Word to the wise, drop the release and send it straight to video. Leave the Car movies as Pixar’s worse feature releases. And for the rest of us leave Coco alone because is not even worth our time on earth.

    • Sim x

      Has it ever been the case at Pixar to make a film purely as a means to profit? Even in the face of Cars 2 I don’t think this was ever the affair. Perhaps for distributors, but for the studio, it would appear that Pixar has always directed their eye with artistic incentive.

      I don’t understand why it can’t be the case that Unkrich and the team simply desired to make a story centred around the day of the dead, for the same artistic reasons that they would conceive of any story. And why shouldn’t they?

      The correlations that you paint between the current political climate in the US and the backlash this film is facing seems completely irrelevant and forced, and I think the idea that Unkrich would conspire to abstract data for corporate interest is utterly removed from reality.

    • HN

      I think your long, long reply is just written nonsense. It does not even tackle the question about why The Book of Life fans are hostile to Coco, and that is the main topic of Lee Unkrich’s Twitter post. I think the answer is that BoL fans fear that if Coco becomes successful, then the BoL will be quickly forgotten and when someone ask a movie about Dia de los Muertos, fans might just point at Coco and not BoL. I think that’s the main concern of the BoL fans. I was even surprised that there are hardcore fans of BoL. That movie flopped so it’s a surprise to me.

      • Mesterius

        “I was even surprised that there are hardcore fans of BoL. That movie flopped so it’s a surprise to me.”

        Maybe the Book of Life fans are worried that Coco might be a better movie.

        Just to be clear, I haven’t seen The Book of Life, but I seem to recall the lukewarm reviews it got as one of the reasons for that. (Which, by the way, is also why I haven’t seen Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur.)

  • Héctor Guerrero

    As a Mexican I can recommend to anyone who wants to understand the Mexican idiosyncrasy, to read the labyrinth of solitude of Octavio Paz.
    May be, brings some light to Mr. Unkrich or anyone.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Labyrinth_of_Solitude

  • HalSolo

    If this movie is great (or even just pretty good), I for one can’t wait to see it clean up and make all these think pieces and twitter conversations moot.

    I remember all the controversy leading up to MOANA and that turned out pretty well in theaters…

  • Alec Fredericks

    Discussion about whether or not Disney/Pixar is intentionally exploiting any culture is missing the point.

    There are two reasons Disney/Pixar makes movies. #1: To make money off of you. #2: To tell stories. In that order. I don’t even think intentional exploitation enters the picture. It’s like dealing with a sociopathic artist that paints beautiful portraits of their dead victims.

    When the victims are only a means to an end, there is no consideration for them. Those who continue to enable the behavior are complicit to the crime. Remember that when you go to pay for that movie ticket, blu-ray, the forthcoming Disney streaming service, or that lunchbox, etc….

    • you forgot to mention the artist who are behind the whole process

    • Tremors

      Really? Victims?

    • Doconnor

      It seems to me the reason Disney has been so successful at making money is that they realize, more then the other big studios, that having a good story will allow you to make money today, tomorrow and continue to make it for decades to come.

  • Inkan1969

    This is the first I heard of the behavior of fans of “The Book of Life” being described as “threatened”.

  • James STanley

    Are Mexican viewers like worried that despite all the good intent at hand, Disney might accidentally get something wrong about the culture in the process? Or that they going about presenting Mexican culture in an overly trivialized and commercialized manner?

    • Colin

      As a mexican, I’ve never heard a complain here about COCO other than the one occasion Disney tried to name the movie ‘Dìa de los Muertos’.

  • mashed potato

    Coco’s received hostility has got to stem from the whole trademark stunt. Unkrich is someone everyone can point to. If Disney tried to trademark Diwali, you can bet Hindus around the world are gonna lay hellfire and boiling hot chai on The Mouse.

    OT: I feel anthropomorphism is one of the elements that gave KFP its
    success. Imagine if they were all played by stylized but human
    characters, Jack Black as the comedic-buffoon caucasian lead, that would
    not have flown very far, if at all.

  • Andres Molina

    I don’t know about everyone, but this whole ulterior controversy involving Coco is both shallow and in my opinion, pretty pointless. First of all, I will be the first person here to say that, I don’t care about whether Pixar has any subliminal cultural messages or whether the film appropriately portrays a culture well or not, which i believe they will do well because I happen to have faith in the film and try to keep an open mind. Its pretty strange to see the expectations of Pixar change or alter for better or worse, in fact, what some people expect in a Pixar film today is pretty insane, when compared to the last 15 years, especially based on what people around me expect from a Pixar film

    Pixar Expectations in 2002:
    – Creative Premise
    – Brilliantly executed storytelling and writing.
    – Memorable/Likable characters.
    – Top tier, state-of-the-art visuals.

    Pixar Expectations in 2017
    – Creative (and now expected by some people, Relatable) Premise
    – Brilliantly executed storytelling and writing.
    – Memorable/Likable characters.
    – Top tier, state-of-the-art visuals.
    – Relatable/believable morals.
    – Be emotional and heartwarming.
    – Must appeal to and accessible to small children, yet somehow be able to appeal to adults at the same time.
    – Must be lighthearted and kid-friendly.
    – Can’t be overly dark or edgy.
    – Must contain a overly deep and insightful message.
    – Must be no longer than 2 hours, short running time is preferred (there are actually some people who have this complaint)

    My expectations from Pixar are the same as in 2002, they haven’t changed, and I won’t change them any time soon.

    And also, this whole idea of ploys and ulterior motives is pretty ridiculous for me. The way I see it, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure is to me a bonus, not a cheap attempt to boost profit projections. Feel free to disagree, but this is what I think, whether someone like it or not.

    • Marielle

      My Pixar expectation was always to see a new movie. Fish in the ocean doesn’t feel new anymore because everyone has done, but when I saw Finding Nemo, it felt like something I had never seen before. Wall-E and Up felt new too. The Good Dinosaur and Cars 3 didn’t. Coco might not feel very new if it’s too much like The Book of Life. I know, there can be more than one film about the Day of the Dead like there can be more than one Christmas movie, but 1) Pixar has never done a Christmas movie / Christmas movies are cliché and 2) Coco and The Book of Life share a protagonist who is forbidden from playing guitar by his family until he travels to the Land of the Dead, meets his family and convinces them to like guitars.

  • Burnt Out

    The lesson is, avoid different cultures full stop, don’t even contemplate making a movie, a show, or anything about it. Too many eggshells to step over, too much hassle. Make animations about fictional creatures, planets, environments.

    • Sim x

      I’m not sure if you’re being serious or sarcastic. If it’s the former then my god no.

    • Axolotl

      Like China.

    • GW

      I approve of the latter part of this idea, even though it almost certainly is a joke. Animation has so much potential and most of it is almost immediately thrown out the window. When we meet aliens will we tell them that we didn’t bother caring about extraterrestrial beings until we just met them? I say forget all the anthropocentric naysayers and make movies about aliens even if they don’t have any human beings in them or if said beings are not equivalent to human intelligence. It’s like the overpriced large drink cup that is made to sell the medium one. Most people will never except the fringe of animation possibilities but the more the boundaries are pushed the more they’ll accept as normal. That goes for other themes as well like philosophy, fantasy worlds, dreams, and films about other country’s cultures like this one.

      I personally won’t see this movie because of my Disney boycott but I wouldn’t want to see it anyways because it seems like The Book of Life meets Rock Dog.

  • Anonymous

    As an independent animator I feel threatened by Lee and Pixar… and Disney and DreamWorks and Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.

  • mxxx

    it might have a better appeal if it wasn’t done by the mainstream. perhaps too the mainstream formula is not a good look. if it seemed entirely fresh I’m pretty sure it would have a better life, It looks a lot like the good dinosaur. in these time what is overlooked is that, data, focus groups, all the methods of trying to secure a success is not so good especially for more cultural stories which require just plain old fashioned normal artistry and cannot follow any stale formula model.

    it could be a case of the studios are behind in evolution than the people. which is pretty awesome. they need to get shaken up. be actually good, you can’t win with cheap safe projects that try to artificially pull on our emotions.

    we’re watching 👀

  • Peter Buckley

    Has it been noted that both films, coincidentally perhaps, contain as a plot point someone discouraged, disallowed or obstructed from playing guitar? that couldn’t help, I’d imagine? Also, perhaps it is an emotional and illogical response but I and others enjoyed The Book of Life so much, we’re protective of that experience, and its hard not to percieve it as the indie and more authentic effort of original vision but I see, of course, that’s highly questionable and debatable.

  • considering the increasingly hostile environment Latinix people are living in right now in this country, I have to wonder what the cultural environment will be like when this movie comes out next fall. Will the Latinix community embrace it or reject it even more? Only time will tell.

  • eejits

    I understand that people can be very protective of their cultures and how they are portrayed in film, but no-one in Scotland got up in arms when Pixar/Disney made Brave?

  • A Gawd Dang Mongolian

    Sounds less like ‘threatened’ and more ‘meh’.

    The ‘Day of the Dead’ celebration was already done with ‘Book of Life’, and the ‘Human Among Spirits’ has already been done by Miyazaki’s ‘Spirited Away’. This feels less like the new fresh works Pixar has done in the past and more a rehashing of old formulae to get butts in the seats.

  • Colin

    I’m mexican and I disliked TBOL for my own reasons and will probably like COCO better but, it’s funny to me that the majority of people who are so insistent that having more than a single movie about mexican folklore is bad if it’s made by a white person, are ironically white people.
    The team behind COCO obviously put effort into what they were doing and it shows because when I watched the trailer it gave more of that Dia de los muertos feeling than TBOL did.

  • Fluffydips

    Poor, poor Pixar. They’ve had quite a rough few years. I can’t believe they don’t get it though, especially with the similarities to The Book Of Life and the political climate. It’s just not a good time for this film right now, it does not help that it’s a november release either. Their last november release was a mediocre one and it makes it feel as if they are burning it off inbetween their slew of sequels lined up. I’ll probably go see it because I see everything Pixar anyway (I thought Cars 3 was one of their greatest films), but maybe audiences are just sick of Pixar? The Disney and Pixar brand has become laughable somewhat, it feels like a parody now. They need to branch out and do new things. Remember Lego Movie? Remember Kubo? Those were neat little surprises. They need to start doing that.

    • HN

      “Poor, poor Pixar. They’ve had quite a rough few years.”

      I don’t know if this is sarcastic or what. Have you heard of Inside Out and Finding Dory? The films which made $857 million and $1.28 billion worldwide? The films which are both critically (98% and 94% in RT) and commercially successful? I mean, aside from The Good Dinosaur and Cars 3, all their other movies have done well. For Cars 3, the purpose of that movie’s release is because of the huge merchandise royalties for the Cars franchise, so it is still a win for Pixar. That leaves The Good Dinosaur as their only failure.

  • La Catrina

    In Mexico we have our own beautiful Day of the Dead movie and is made by Metacube, a CGI animation studio based in Jalisco Mexico; the movie is called “Día de Muertos” and that was the reason why Disney can´t trademark that name. Disney/Pixar knows very well “Día de Muertos Movie” which had their release date with Videocine on November 3th, 2017 and thats why Disney/Pixar advanced their release date in Mexico to October 27th to put in front of “Día de Muertos Movie” to gain the whole market leaving in disadvantage to the really Mexican film and forcing to Videocine to get out of the way of Disney and not interfere and moving “Día de Muertos Movie” release until November 2018. Disney/Pixar has all the money to do that, to buy all the theaters, to make all the agreements with the Distributors and exhibitors.
    Día de Muertos Movie was in production before “Coco”, Before Book of Life but in México is very difficult to make films like these, while a Disney / Pixar film have 200 MDD of budget in Mexico has only 5% of that budget to make a film of excellent international quality but it is still a lot of money. Any way, here is the answer for Lee Unkrich, here is the prove that big ones always smash the little and stole our stories, our culture to make money. I hope to Metacube all the best wishes for the next year, the movie seems to be incredible beautiful, please, to all the Mexican people, my people, give your support to “Día de Muertos Movie” https://www.facebook.com/diademuertosthemovie/

    • Marielle

      I didn’t know they had moved it to 2018. They’ve been planning it for so long!

  • Strong Enough

    so i’m guessing Disney plans to hire Joe Arpaio as consultant is now off the table. damn disney

  • Alex Hartsell

    Boy… I am sure am shocked that a lot of dumb people are being so serious that Coco is ripping off Book of Life when it’s NOT! Also I am still hoping this will be the better PIXAR film of year than (uggh) Cars 3. Also in fact I will think Coco will be way better than Book of Life because looking at the trailers for it, Coco won’t try to have painful modern talk or songs and a miscast Ice Cube in it. It will tell a nice original story about a already done idea in a new way and with nice animation/art and not relaying on modern culture to be hip.

  • Gabi Vallu

    simple question: has anyone seen the movie yet? before criticizing it?

  • We Mexicans have no problem with products that talk about our culture #whattheheckworld?

  • Rodrigo Suarez

    Mexican people are, by and large, absolutely thrilled about the prospect of this movie.
    Americans of Mexican descent, on the other hand, just want to find reasons to be offended.

  • Babs

    I can´t speak for other people, but as a Mexican I do have some mixed feelings about the movie and it has 80% to do with the trademark scandal. It just feels sleazy, to go behind our back and try to take something so important to us for pure monetary gain and then be like “upsies! our bad, but still come see our movie!” Its like catching your best man trying to seduce your fiancee over a bet and be like: “Nah man, it didn´t even work! But are you ready for the wedding? We are going to have so much fun together!

  • Luis Medrano

    It’s important to note that looking for whatever reason to be offended is a US specific phenomenon. We here in Mexico are pretty excited about the film 😁🎉.