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Does Pixar’s ‘Coco’ Owe Its Success to ‘The Book of Life’?

An animated controversy over two Día de los Muertos cartoon films.

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If you’re a fan of any popular movie site, it’d be impossible to miss the mini-controversy over Pixar’s box-office smash Coco. The issue is that in 2014, 20th Century Fox released a similar Day of the Dead-themed animated feature The Book of Life, starring, among others, Diego Luna. Coco, meanwhile stars Gael García Bernal, who along with Diego starred in Y tu mamá también and co-founded the production company  Canana Films together. Surely the casting Gael García constituted a blatant dig at the Guillermo del Toro-produced Book of Life, no?

As fractured as this country is right now, you could (not) be forgiven for thinking there isn’t room in Hollywood for two 3D computer-animated musicals about the same ghost-centric Mexican holiday starring commonly-associated stars, even if they did appear three years apart. Though, if you seriously believe that then you’re probably the kind of person who doesn’t understand why Pakistani-American Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick needed to exist when we already had American-born Aziz Ansari’s TV show Masters of None on Netflix.

So did Pixar rip-off what people assume is the less well-known Book of Life (despite the latter receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture, a $99.8 million box-office gross and an admirable 89% on Rotten Tomatoes). Well, the answer is a little more nuanced than that.

For example, Life’s director and co-writer Jorge R. Gutierrez announced that he is “rooting” for Coco. “Aside from employing lots of my friends, how can I not root for an animated film that celebrates Mexican culture?” Jorge tweeted last year, giving his blessing to the film. Not to mention that the two films appear to symbiotic: the buzz around Coco certainly played a part in ReelFX greenlighting a sequel to The Book of Life.

Still, you can’t ignore the obvious similarities of the films; less so in the themes, plot and tone than the visuals. Coco’s animation is so strikingly similar to that of The Book of Life that it’s impossible not to imagine Coco’s animators mining the previous film for concept art. While we still think that both movies stand on their own, separately important merits, a quick visual comparison reveals just how close Coco is to The Book of Life.

Kids playing at a cemetery altar in ‘The Book of Life.’

Miguel playing at the family alter in ‘Coco.’
An old photo of Joaquin in ‘The Book of Life.’
An old photo of Ernesto in ‘Coco.’
Manolo playing guitar instead of bullfighting in “The Book of the Living.”
Miguel plays guitar instead of listening to his family and not breaking into a dead man’s mausoleum in ‘Coco.’
A giant bull skeleton that turns out to be a softie in ‘The Book of Life.’
Pepita, a scary spirit animal that turns out to be a softie in ‘Coco.’
Day of the Dead in ‘The Book of Life.’
Day of the Dead in ‘Coco.’
Deals in the afterlife in ‘The Book of Life.’
Deals in the afterlife in ‘Coco.’
The Land of the Remembered in ‘The Book of Life.’
The Land of the Dead in ‘Coco.’
Party-wear in ‘The Book of the Living.’
Party-wear in ‘Coco.”
The lantern-jaw sugar skulls of ‘The Book of Life.’
The lantern-jaw sugar skulls of ‘Coco.’
On the nose imagery in ‘The Book of Life.’
Ditto in ‘Coco.’

Does Coco’s existence nullify or corrupt The Book of Life for its own purposes? Doubtful. There’s a fine line between homage and mimicry, but if imitation is the highest form of flattery, Coco’s creators must be the hugest Book of Life fans out there.