Growing up in Bogotá, Colombia, there was nothing I hated more than watching an American film dubbed into Spanish. One time when my mom, my siblings, and I set out to watch Shrek for our usual Sunday movie outing, it was only when the Dreamworks animated movie began that I found out there’d been a mix-up and we’d ended up at a screening of the dubbed version. I was livid. I couldn’t stay and watch this movie I’d heard so much about and have to listen to Eugenio Derbez as the donkey. It was unconscionable. I threw a tantrum. There was definitely some hissing, some whispered yelling, and eventually only some begrudging groaning. I was 17.
Part of why I so hated watching these animated movies in their dubbed versions was obviously the fact that I was a spoiled brat. Spanish was, after all, my first language and there was no reason other than my own snobbery that prevented me from enjoying these films in translated form. And, I had to admit, as my mom continues to argue to this day, Derbez’s “Burro” remains one of the best examples of what a capable performer can do when dubbing a foreign film for Latin American audiences. So it was with trepidation that I went in to see Pixar’s latest, Coco, in theaters while in Mexico. I’d seen the movie, which boasts an impressive English voice cast that includes Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, and Edward James Olmos, back in New York a few weeks back. I found it charming, hilarious, and full of heart. And yes, like audiences below the border — where Coco has become the most successful film of all time – I wept by the time Miguel and Natalia LaFourcade’s rendition of “Remember Me” played over the credits.
In fact, that bilingual take on the film’s theme song was indicative of the kind of linguistic and cultural mix you experience when watching the American cut of this story about a boy who finds himself stranded in the Land of the Dead. Yes, the movie takes place in Mexico and characters like Gael’s Hector throw in a chamaco every now and then, but everyone mostly speaks English. Some with an accent, others with nary a trace of it. Coco is as Mexican-American as films get. After all, co-director Adrian Molina is but one of the many Mexican-Americans working behind the scenes in what may well be Pixar’s most culturally specific movie in their lauded pantheon.
So I was not so much apprehensive about catching the Spanish dubbed version as I was intrigued. Translated animated flicks could sometimes make you groan as they tried to shoehorn Latino expressions or jokes into films that were obviously written and designed by and for an Anglo audience. Not here, though. From the very first moments, during which we’re told the history of Miguel’s family via a series of cute papel picado decorations, it all fell into place. Though it’s mildly jarring (albeit temporary) to see this small Mexican boy speak English in the “original” movie, this disappears when you catch the version where he’s speaking in his native tongue.
“It’s the fact that it doesn’t feel like it’s been dreamed and drawn in another language first that makes Coco’s Spanish version sing.”
Here at last was the kind of dubbing that didn’t feel like it was mangling, or weirdly bending the original into something it was not. It just had its characters talking (and singing) in the very language they were meant to speak. There’s a difference, for example, in hearing Miguel’s family talk about ofrendas (a word that always feels like it’s being italicized by its voice performers when speaking English, eager as they surely are to make it clear it’s a Spanish expression many may not be familiar with), and quite another to see that word just roll along in dialogue that doesn’t needlessly highlight it.
That’s perhaps even truer when it comes to Hector, the bumbling skeleton that Miguel befriends while in the Land of the Dead, and to Ernesto de la Cruz, the famed musical legend the musically inclined young boy admires and hopes to find while in that fantastical world. The former may be voiced by García Bernal in both versions (he’s one of a handful of actors who made good use of his bilingualism to score a double gig) but the latter, played by Benjamin Bratt, was dubbed by Marco Antonio Solís. And not to diminish Bratt’s singing abilities, but it truly is something else to hear the Pedro Infante-like character be portrayed by one of Mexico’s most recognizable voices.
It’s in the songs where the real triumph lies in Coco’s Spanish version. “Remember Me” is the kind of song you’ll find yourself humming no matter what language you listen to it in, but the loving lullaby is truly transcendent when the former Los Bukis singer takes a stab at “Recuérdame” while surrounded by a throng of dancers high-kicking as he parades around in a form-fitting mariachi suit.
All the elements that you’d talk about as adding a certain Mexican flavor to the film in English (a result of Pixar working with people like cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz and Mexican Institute of Sound’s Camilo Lara) end up becoming cultural markers that Latinos, and Mexicans in particular, will respond to as mere realities that reflect their own authentic culture finally being put lovingly on screen. When Ernesto finds one of his concerts hijacked by Mamá Imelda (voiced by telenovela star Angélica Vale) as she croons “La Llorona,” for example, there’s not quite a disconnect as characters aren’t switching between singing in English and Spanish – director Lee Unkrich and his team have wisely kept the famous folk song in its native language for both versions. Add to that the easter egg that Vale’s own mother, the great Angélica Maria plays Miguel’s Abuelita (a still-living relative of Mamá Imelda) and you have the kind of easter egg you rarely get in dubbed versions of even the most anticipated Hollywood movies.
This is all a way of saying that Pixar has done the unthinkable. It made me love a film in translation. Except, of course, it’s the fact that it doesn’t feel like it’s been dreamed and drawn in another language first that makes Coco’s Spanish version sing.
Coco is currently playing in Mexico and opens in US theaters on November 22. Select theaters in the United States will play the Spanish-language version of Coco. Keep an eye out for a list of theaters here.