How Pixar Made Sure ‘Coco’ Was Culturally Conscious

And that was before the rise of President Trump.

The choices made by the director and his collaborators suggest one model for culturally conscious filmmaking at the blockbuster level. On “Coco,” Pixar’s 19th film and the first to feature a minority character in the lead role, Mr. Unkrich largely dispensed with the playbook used to create immersive fictional worlds like those in “Finding Nemo” and “Monsters, Inc.” Instead he relied on several research trips to Mexico and the personal stories of Latino team members, which helped ground his fantasy realm with specific geographic and sociological roots.

The filmmakers also turned to an array of outside Latino cultural consultants to vet ideas and suggest new ones — upending a long-running studio tradition of strict creative lockdown. That approach was formalized after an early misstep in 2013, when lawyers for Disney applied to trademark the phrase “Día de los Muertos,” a working title for “Coco,” and ignited a backlash online.

“We don’t normally open up the doors to let people in to see our early screenings,” Darla K. Anderson, one of the film’s producers and a longtime Pixar admiral, said of working with external consultants. “But we really wanted their voice and their notes and to make sure we got all the details correct.”

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The director Lee Unkrich, left, with Anthony Gonzalez and the producer Darla K. Anderson at the film’s Los Angeles premiere. “With me not being Latino myself,” Mr. Unkrich said, “I knew that this project was going to come under heavy scrutiny.”

Credit
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

“Coco” tells the story of Miguel Rivera, a 12-year-old Mexican boy who dreams of becoming a famous troubadour like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz — a guitar hero and movie star inspired by midcentury luminaries like Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete. Miguel’s family sharply disapproves of music, leading to a fateful act of rebellion on the Day of the Dead that plunges him into an incandescent netherworld of walking skeletons, winged spirits and long-buried family secrets.

By seeking input on everything from character design to story early on, the studio hoped to make the movie feel more native than tourist, and to pre-empt the kind of withering, social-media-fueled whitewashing controversy that plagued the production of the Charlie Hunnam vehicle “American…

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