In Coco, the latest Pixar animated feature, a young Mexican boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) rejects his family’s ban on playing music, an edict put into effect by his great-great-grandmother after his great-great-grandfather left the family to pursue his own musical dreams. Miguel’s hero is the late Ernesto de la Cruz, a local legend who became a successful musician and film star before dying in an untimely freak accident onstage — and to whom Miguel deduces he may be more connected than he previously realized.
On Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Miguel finds himself through a series of events transported to the Land of the Dead, where he must get the blessing of a family member so he can return to the world of the living. But when his ancestors refuse to give their blessing without Miguel promising to give up music, he sets out on a quest — accompanied by a lonely, fading spirit named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) — that will bring him face to face with his ghostly idol at last.
Ernesto de la Cruz is voiced in Coco by Benjamin Bratt, widely known for his work as Rey Curtis on Law & Order but also renowned for a long string of other roles, both live-action and animated, including Traffic, Miss Congeniality, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Infiltrator and Doctor Strange. Bratt brings a mellifluous tone to the voice of De la Cruz, capturing the shift between the heartfelt artist he may have been and the slick (if dead) celebrity he has become. But strangely enough (for reasons also evident in the film which we won’t delve into here), Bratt began his journey by voicing the role of Hector.
“Probably about two or three years before any discussion came up about me actually even performing in the film, I was invited to Pixar to simply take part in a read-through of a script,” says Bratt at the recent press day for the movie in Los Angeles. “As I recall, I read the role of Hector. But the funny thing is, I said to my agent, I said, ‘Look, before I fly all the way out to Emeryville from the East Coast’ — which is where I was at the time — ‘can you clarify for me, is this an audition?’ And she said she’d get back to me. ‘No, it’s definitely not an audition. They are very firm about that. It’s not an audition. They’re just asking you to do this favor.’ So I said okay, I’ll go — knowing full-well that on some level, it’s an audition.”
Once he got up to Pixar headquarters, however, Bratt was pleased he made the trip. “It’s nothing less than impressive,” he enthuses. “Architecturally it’s beautiful. But you get this sense of just full artistic commitment in every area. Graphic arts, editorial, merchandising — people there are intensely in love with the place they work at. And that becomes kind of infectious.”
Bratt recalls being taken to a room where early images and character renderings from Coco were on display: “That’s when I started to get excited because it was really on that tour that I recognized this kind of portrayal,” he continues. “This reflection of brown faces on this kind of scale has never been done. And it was about time. And in a way, as much as it was going to be a celebration of the uniqueness of Latino Culture and all the vibrancy and beauty that exists within it, it was also going to underscore our global commonalities. Universal things that all of us can relate to.
Those universal things — our love for family, our memories of our ancestors, and the combination of both that keep traditions and family names alive — are at the heart of Coco. “Whether you’re from the European continent or Africa or Asia or anywhere else in the world, at the end of the day we all have this sense of a need,” says Bratt. “This sense of belonging, this recognition of identity and the importance of it. This notion of where we come from and how we can pursue our dreams and still remain connected to who and what we are. That fascinated me. And now seeing the completed film, they succeeded on every level. So it’s succeeded as a piece of entertainment, but I find it somewhat groundbreaking in its illumination of these human beings who happen to be of Latin descent.”
Coco comes along at a crossroads of sorts for our own national conversation, which has been dominated during the past two years by a divisive rhetoric that paints people of color — brown or black, immigrant or citizen — in an adversarial light. “What I’m hopeful for is that this film and what it says about our humanity acts as a kind of bridge as opposed to a wall,” says Bratt carefully but firmly. “While there are those out there, elected officials who are interested in creating these divisions and denigrating our culture, the film goes a long way to disproving those sentiments and supports what most of the rest of us understand — that we’re all in this together.”
Bratt himself is of European and Peruvian descent; his mother, an Indigenous American activist (like her son), came here from Peru at the age of 14. And while Peruvian culture does not have an exact equivalent to Dia de los Muertos, the concept of honoring the memory of one’s ancestors was certainly familiar to him before he joined the film. “I didn’t grow up with that celebration specifically,” he explains. “But having been born and raised in California, in what is largely a Mexican-American community, you know that iconography, even some of that belief, which seeps into the larger culture. And there are members of my family who even provide offerings.
“My mother emigrated here from Peru when she was 14,” he adds. “And there was always this feeling of nostalgia for her as long as I can remember, and now in her early 80’s it’s even more pronounced — this idea that even though she’s here and has created an entirely new life here she’s somehow still connected to where she comes from. And not just because of geography, but because of who she understood herself to be through her blood ties, through her cousins, her aunts, her uncles. That was an early part of my understanding what it was to be Latino, which is family first, stay connected.”
That is ultimately the most vital theme presented in Coco, although there’s certainly a nice takeaway about being able to pursue your own dreams as well. Bratt, for one, can’t wait to see the film again and take his mother this time: “I’m really looking forward to her seeing this film and I want to dedicate whatever my participation in it is to her,” he says. “And to all that she taught me and my brothers and sisters, because I think she’ll see herself in it.”
Coco is out in theaters tomorrow (Wednesday, November 22).