One of the biggest changes in the Hollywood film business is the increased importance of the international markets in studio balance sheets. It's just not possible to make the math work on a $150 million budget (and the tens of millions of hidden dollars used for marketing and promotion) without selling a lot of tickets in Europe, Japan, South America, and, most importantly of all, China. Everybody likes explosions, good guys vs. bad guys, and sexy starlets. But there are some things that just won't fly in Beijing — like comedies that are too dependent on the nuances of language. The complaint (which I frequently make) that big blockbusters have gotten stupider is only half true. In fact, they've just become easier to translate.
The chase for offshore money has inspired a number of strategies, such as releasing different cuts in different countries which feature more prominent roles for native language speakers, as happened in both Kong: Skull Island and Independence Day: Resurgence, resulting in crappy, disjointed editing. But those results are considered a small price to pay for market flexibility, and the assumption is that white American audiences don't want to watch Asian heroes and heroines. But it's not just box office that the studios are after, it's investment money, too. Attracting Asian capital by making Hollywood product designed for Asian audiences has led to such tone deaf debacles as Matt Damon fighting Mongol tentacle monsters in The Great Wall.
On the other hand, there's Coco. The new film from Pixar is a master class in how to make stories with a definite cultural identity that have broad appeal to all audiences. Coco's dual settings are Mexico and the hybrid Catholic/Mesoamerican afterlife hinted at by Dia de los Muertos iconography. Putting a film in a holiday tradition is, of course, a time honored Hollywood trick that has brought us everything from Bing Crosby crooning "White Christmas" in Holiday Inn to Bruce Willis battling terrorists in Die Hard.
Coco's hero is Miguel, voiced by Anthony Gonzalez, a young boy born into the sprawling Rivera family. The clan's stock and trade is shoemaking, a craft that has kept them afloat and prosperous for four generations. Miguel's great grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach) was married to a musician who ran off to pursue his career after their daughter Coco (Ana Ofellia Murguía) was born. Ever since then, the family has operated on a strict no-music policy, forcefully enforced by Elana (Renee Victor). But Miguel, naturally, loves music and has secretly become a skillful mariachi, and when he accidentally breaks a picture frame from the family's Day of the Dead ofrenda, he discovers that his missing great grandfather probably became Mexico's most famous musician, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Miguel's quest to reclaim his family's musical heritage gets twisted when he accidentally transports himself to the Land of the Dead, where he meets his deceased family members who still hate music, and Héctor (Gael García Bernal), a down on his luck troubadour who offers to take Miguel to meet de la Cruz. For Miguel, returning to the Land of the Living is dependent on resolving old family mysteries.
Coco is visually as sumptuous as anything Pixar or any other animation studio has ever produced. Director Lee Unkrich and the Pixar team of hundreds of animators of all possible specialities take complete advantage of the 4K format to bring sparkling lights and eye-popping color to every frame. The facial animation, particularly when Miguel sings, is worlds better than even Unkrich's last Pixar outing, Toy Story 3. Aside from the fact that virtually everyone involved is Latino, the story and characters are pretty standard Disney fare. Hector, for example, is basically a skeletonized Baloo the Bear from Jungle Book. But even if it's formulaic, the formula is executed with love and care and extended to an audience which hasn't had it before. The wisdom of this strategy became obvious earlier this month, when it took Coco two weeks to become the highest grossing film in Mexican history. The real secret to making it in the globalized film market is there is no secret, just solid fundamentals and a dash of love.