How Pixar’s ‘Coco’ became a huge box-office hit

(Disney-Pixar via AP) In this image released by Disney-Pixar, character Hector, voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal, left, and Miguel, voiced by Anthony Gonzalez, appear in a scene from the animated film, "Coco."

Over the holiday weekend, audiences in the rest of North America flocked to what Mexican moviegoers had affirmed more than a month ago: Disney/Pixar's "Coco" is an authentically appealing winner.

The animated smash soared to a $71.2 million domestic debut to win the five-day holiday frame, topping such superhero behemoths as "Justice League" and "Thor: Ragnarok," according to studio estimates Sunday. "Coco" grossed $49 million for the three-day domestic weekend, according to Box Office Mojo, and has now pulled in a total of $153.4 million worldwide.

All the positive commercial and critical reception - "Coco" is rated 96 percent "fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes - reflects how wise Pixar was to begin listening to its critics four years ago.

The company was about two years into the making of "Coco" when it committed a significant PR blunder. For its marketing, Disney in 2013 applied to trademark "Dia de los Muertos" - the Mexican holiday that the movie centers on - sparking a backlash from prominent Latino voices.

Mexican-American cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz ("La Cucaracha") helped give image to the outcry. Alcaraz, who had tweeted that trying to brand the holiday came across as "awful and crass," created the Mickey Mouse-spoofing cartoon "Muerto Mouse," with the caption: "It's coming to trademark your cultura."

According to Jason Katz, the story supervisor on "Coco," the backlash to the Southern California parent company's trademark attempt was tough to take in the Bay Area, where Pixar's Emeryville studio is located.

"Working at Pixar, you're in a little bit of a bubble - we're removed from the machine to a certain extent," Katz tells The Washington Post. "(We were) trying to be as genuine and authentic as you can. It wasn't something we were expecting. We were all just disappointed and sad."

The incident, though, led to a realization. "We needed to make sure that even though we were reaching out to folks, we needed to make this movie differently than any other movie we'd made," says Katz, who has been with the studio since its first feature film, 1995's "Toy Story." "We needed to maybe not keep our cards so close to our chest."

To course-correct for such blind spots, Pixar hired three key consultants: Marcela Davison Avilés, longtime president of the Mexican Heritage Corp. in nearby San Jose; playwright Octavio Solis; and Alcaraz himself.

"What's great about working with Lalo is that he is authentic - he does not mince words," Katz says. "We pitched him the film and (whatP) we were trying to do. ... He was just a huge ally."

Alcaraz gives the studio credit concerning "Coco," which he notes is co-directed by rising young talent Adrian Molina, who is of Mexican descent. "Pixar was already on its way to making this a culturally authentic film and we met somewhere in the middle," Alcaraz says. "And even though I'm not very corporate, they listened to what I had to say."

Katz says that "Coco," a six-year project, was anchored by a central mission: The filmmakers "were just trying to find a story that feels like it's worthy to be in the world."

And so finding "Coco's" story, which revolves around a 12-year-old boy's musical journey, began in 2011 with a cultural journey. Katz, director Lee Unkrich, producer Darla K. Anderson and production designer Harley Jessup took the first of several research trips to Mexico. "There are things you learn by being there," Matz says, "and asking questions (like), 'If we did this, would it bug you?' "

Team "Coco" embedded with families throughout their day, witnessing rituals and meeting neighbors. They were invited to the cemetery to help clean family graves, and they were invited to funerals.

The filmmakers, including writer Matthew Aldrich, also visited multi-terraced sites like Guanajuato that were literally layered with history. That helped inspire the vertical look of "Coco's" towering afterlife.

Those trips inspired the filmmakers to base their fictional town of Santa Cecilia on real sites in Oaxaca. "That helped us decide the lighting," Katz says, as well as "the size of the cemetery and the (regional) music that would be present."

The first large affirmation of their dedication came last month, when "Coco" debuted in Mexico shortly before Day of the Dead festivities.

"Seeing this reaction from Mexico, weeks before anybody in the United States saw it, (was) beyond what we could hope for," Katz says. "That to me is so moving."

"I got to see it at the Mexican premiere in Spanish," he notes, and "to hear them laugh and cry at the right places, and gasp when we want them to gasp - it was amazing."

The film that once raised warning flags is now being uplifted in the nation it seeks to honor and respect.

"Coco," with more than $48 million in ticket sales, is now the biggest film in Mexican history.