How Legendary Cartoonist & CED Alum Lalo Alcaraz Helped Pixar Get Coco Right
By Gabriel San Roman
28 November 2017
Photo Courtesy of Pixar
Pixar's Coco, the animated Dia de los Muertos tale, raked in $71.2 million over the five-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend to claim the top spot. Families packed theaters in droves eager to see a positive representation of Mexicans on the big screen, and Coco delivered, for its portrayal of 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 and College of Environmental Design alumnus Lalo Alcaraz (M.Arch ‘92).
The nationally syndicated cartoonist-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,” criticizing Disney for the move it quickly abandoned after a widespread outcry from Latinos online.
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. Below is an interview between Alcaraz and the OC Weekly about his role in the film.
Gabriel San Roman (OC Weekly): How did you first become involved with Coco’s 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'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.