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Wednesday June 26th, 2019 6:56PM

'Coco' draws Latino audiences, others with theme of family

By The Associated Press
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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The day before Thanksgiving, a predominantly Latino audience packed an Albuquerque theater on Route 66 to catch the U.S. premiere of "Coco." In San Jose, California, multi-generational Latino families came together to see the movie. At the Vineland Drive-In outside of Los Angeles, Mexican-Americans in trucks and vintage cars sat outside then took selfies with the movie's posters.

"Coco," one of the largest U.S. productions ever to feature an almost entirely Latino cast, is drawing large audiences among Latinos for its depiction of Mexican culture at a time when many feel uneasy about their place in the nation's policies, including immigration.

In the Pixar animated film's opening week, Latino families crowded theaters from Houston to Phoenix and posted photos and comments about the movie's references to Pedro Infante and painter Frida Kahlo. They took note of the mention of chancla (flip-flops used by Mexican mothers to also discipline children) and urged others to see the film, too.

"It was a great way to spend the holiday in light of everything that has been going on," said Jennie Luna, a Chicana/o Studies professor at California State University, Channel Island. She saw the film with her mother, grandmother and 3-year-old niece. "It was representative and well done. We were excited to see people like us in a movie."

"Just watched Disney's and Pixar's movie #Coco with the family!" Retired Mexican American NASA Astronaut Jose Hernandez tweeted on Friday. "What a well done movie that respects our culture!"

"Coco," which opened last Wednesday in the United States, is Pixar's first feature film with a minority lead character. The English-language version is sprinkled with bilingual dialogue and set in a pueblo that resembles a town in Mexico or a village in northern New Mexico.

The animated film opened to the fourth best Thanksgiving weekend ever with an estimated $72.9 million over the five-day weekend. That total easily toppled Warner Bros.' "Justice League."

Centered on the Mexican holiday Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), "Coco" has already set box office records in Mexico, where it has made $53.4 million in three weeks.

The movie follows Miguel, a 12-year-old Mexican boy with the heart of a musician born in a family that has prohibited music for generations. After fighting with his family, Miguel slips into a wondrous netherworld where he depends on his long-dead ancestors to restore him to the land of the living.

Characters in the English version of the movie are bilingual and drop references to pan dulce (Mexican pastries) and various foods. Spirits had to "crossover" from the land of the dead to the land of the living — an allusion to the U.S.-Mexico border.

"Coco" comes after Disney's sucessful "Moana" — a computer-animated movie featuring a girl from a Polynesian village. That movie garnered mostly positive reaction from Polynesian audiences in 2016 and used consultants to make sure the film was culturally sensitive.

Lina Maria Murillo, 36, of San Jose, said "Coco's" early success showed that a film that used predominantly Latino characters who are bilingual could do well in the U.S. Because those references are so rare in mainstream movies it was special to see them in a movie with a strong storyline, she said.

Murillo took her husband and two daughters to see the film Sunday. Her daughters, Samaralucia, 8, and Isamaria, 6, had wanted to see it since viewing the previews, Murillo said.

After exiting the Spanish-language version of the movie around 11 p.m., the girls began asking about deceased family members on the way home, Murillo said.

"My parents emigrated from Colombia and my husband's family goes with many generations in El Paso....so this movie hit all the connections," Murillo said. "It moved me to tears."

Alexandro José Gradilla, a Chicana and Chicano Studies professor at California State University, Fullerton, saw the film on its opening night with his wife and daughter. After discussing the movie with extended family during Thanksgiving, he went to see the movie again with those who hadn't seen it yet.

"It's striking a nerve at the right time," Gradilla said. "And people were posting their photos on social media to document it."

For Disney, the positive reaction from Latinos was a remarkable turnaround from four years ago when production came under scrutiny after Disney sought to trademark "Dia de los Muertos," the name of the traditional "Day of the Dead." Disney Enterprises Inc. dropped its trademark filing after fiery social-media posts charging Disney with culturally appropriating the holiday.

Disney had hoped to secure name rights for merchandise such as snack foods and Christmas ornaments as it partners with Pixar Animation Studios Inc.

Mexican-American cartoonist and humorist Lalo Alcaraz was one of those critical of Disney's trademark try. But after he created a cartoon of a skeletal Godzilla-sized Mickey Mouse destroying a city, Disney hired him as a cultural consultant for the project.

Alcaraz said he and others helped Pixar make a film that Latinos felt wasn't stereotypical or demeaning. As the film was set to be released in the U.S., he asked his fans to tweet pictures of their families at theaters.

"That's why we did it," Murillo said. "It was like we were part of something."

Hispanics made up 23 percent of frequent moviegoers last year.

Disney didn't share ethnic demographics for "Coco" ticket buyers, but the movie was No. 1 at the U.S. box office and performed well elsewhere, like in China where it made $18.2 million.

___

Associated Press writer Russell Contreras is a member of the AP's race and ethnicity team. Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

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