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Is Pixar’s Coco ripping off The Book of Life?

For the people who haven’t seen it yet, Pixar’s new Oscar-winning feature Coco tells the story of Mexican 12-year-old Miguel who loves to play his guitar, but was born into a family in which music is banned. Abuelita’s strictness regarding music seems justified by a will to protect her family, as her grandfather abandoned them to become a musician. While helping his grandma set up the family ofrenda (an altar with family photographs) for Dia de los Muertos, the festival of the Dead, Miguel discovers in the torn up picture of his great-great-grandfather that he is holding Ernesto de la Cruz’s guitar, the greatest musician of all time, and Miguel’s idol. Trying to reconnect with this long-lost part of his family, Miguel is transported into the Land of the Dead and must seek out Ernesto to receive his blessing and return to the Land of the Living.

Pixar has been the target of controversy regarding Coco since 2013, when they attempted to trademark the phrase “Dia de los Muertos” for marketing purposes, causing extreme backlash from the Mexican community. The film was received with scepticism also because, despite the mostly Latin cast, the film’s director, Lee Unkrich, is a white American. Before it was even released, Coco managed to enrage animation fans as well. Pixar has been accused of ripping off The Book of Life, another Dia de los Muertos themed animation feature by Reel FX, released in 2014. Arguably, the two films have a good degree of similarity. First of all, both protagonists are musicians and neither of their families approves of the path they have decided to take. They both venture into the Land of the Dead and have to find a way to return to their loved ones in the Land of the Living. Thematically though, the two films are very dissimilar. The Book of Life is a romance and Manolo’s actions are driven by his love for María, while Coco is about family values as the title itself suggests: Coco being Miguel’s great-grandmother.

The most blatant similarity though is the visual style of the Land of the Dead. Both films portray it as a dark, though vibrantly colourful and happy place of celebration. Tall and seemingly unstable buildings characterise the Mexican afterlife in the two animations, though I was not able to find any traditional description or depiction of this land. Both Coco and The Book of Life have been praised for the accurate representation of Mexican culture, incorporating elements of its popular culture and folklore. Coco brings to life alebrijes, brightly coloured sculptures of fantastical creatures, and even turns Dante the Xoloitzcuintli (Mexican hairless dog) into one of them (although Pixar took some creative liberties as the figures are not typically associated with the Land of the Dead). The artwork of José Guadalupe Posada is present in both films as his calaveras, skull paintings and engravings, are a massive part of the iconographic tradition of the Day of the Dead. Only The Book of Life picked up on the figure of La Catrina, the referential image of Death in Mexico and icon of the festival. This demonstrates how differently the research for the two projects was conducted. Pixar’s American team took a couple of trips to Mexico and probably fell in the tourist trap of alebrijes figures, while The Book of Life’s Mexican director and team relied on their own experience. And although Pixar films can take years – almost decades sometimes – to be made, animation for Coco started in 2016, giving its team plenty of time to rethink the look of Coco after The Book of Life had come out.

Coco is not the first time Pixar was involved in a case of twin films (similar movies that come out at the same time). 1998 saw the release of both A Bug’s Life and Antz (DreamWorks); Finding Nemo came out in 2003 while 2004 had Shark Tale (DreamWorks). Pixar never feared the competition, knowing the superiority of their own products. Though in 2011, for the first time, Pixar cancelled a release due to the competitor’s Rio (Blue Sky Studios) having the same exact story as their project Newt, only with a different animal species. So, it is not unreasonable to believe that Pixar did not fear the competition of a film that had a fourth of their budget for Coco and made one eighth of their box office revenue. Before landing at Reel FX and into the hands of Guillermo del Toro as a producer, The Book of Life had been pitched to every possible animation studio, including Disney, who therefore must have known about the idea since the early 2000’s.

The more extremist side of this debate – which granted, is a very niche debate in the community – compares the whole argument with accusing Miracle of 34th Street of ripping off Home Alone as they are both Christmas movies. I personally disagree with this stance. The hope though is for more of such brilliant animation to celebrate diversity. The best comment on this entire controversy was given by the director of The Book of Life, Jorge R. Gutierrez, who tweeted: “I’m rooting for Coco! Aside from employing lots of my friends, how can I not root for an animated film that celebrates Mexican culture?”.

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