Mexican production company Fotosíntesis Media makes animated movies with social impact on subjects that are often seen as difficult to talk about. Their 2015 release La increíble historia del Niño de Piedra (The Incredible Story of the Stone Boy) aimed to encourage openness about negative emotions, while their follow up, 2017’s El angel en el reloj (The Angel in the Clock), dealt with childhood cancer.

Loosely adapted from Jaime Mijares’ book Pablo y El Baúl, their latest feature Un disfraz para Nicolás (A Costume for Nicolás), invites viewers into the magical realm of a 10-year-old boy with Down syndrome who finds courage in wearing the various disguises his late mother used to make for him.

As the eponymous Nicolás tries to bond with his older cousin David (Emiliano Ugarte), we learn about the power of nightmares in a quest populated by princesses, cowboys and pirates. Early on, pop star Paty Cantú came on board to provide an original song for the film and eventually joined the voice cast as both Nicolás’ mother and a powerful sorceress. The story hit close for her because of her experience with a young nephew.

For first-time director Eduardo Rivero, working from Miguel Ángel Uriegas’ screenplay, the key mandate was to approach the stigma and ignorance around cognitive disabilities in a way that wasn’t direct, to the point that the protagonist’s disorder is never mentioned by name on screen.

‘Un disfraz para Nicolás.’ Courtesy of Fotosíntesis Media.

“We didn’t want to make something manipulative or that incites pity, but rather put the issue in a context where the protagonist has to face a specific situation,” Rivero told Remezcla over the phone from Mexico City. “The fantastical adventures are a metaphor that helps Nicolás face the obstacle at hand, and for the supporting characters to understand that they must respect and open to the character that’s different from them.”

In the initial stages of development, Rivero visited schools for children with special needs. In one of them he came across Fran Fernández, a boy with Down syndrome. Not only did he cast him to be the voice of Nicolás, but him and his team also based the character on his facial features, from the shape of his eyes to his hair color. Nicolás was the first character they designed and, based on that, the rest fell into place to fit into his world.

Hiring Fernández was an organic decision for the production, as it put their message of inclusion into effective practice and embedded it into the fibers of the project. Fernández didn’t have any previous acting experience, but Rivero and his team saw his potential and afforded him the opportunity to explore his talent.

Director Eduardo Rivero, actor Fran Fernández, and Miguel Ángel Uriegas, screenwriter and producer. Courtesy of Fotosíntesis Media.

“Society tends to believe that people with certain disabilities are not functional, but that’s completely prejudiced; they are,” exalted Rivero. “Through this process there was a boost to Fran’s confidence, and on a more practical level the repetition of the lines helped with his diction.” During the end credits we get to see Fernández in the recording sessions.

As most of the animation made in Mexico today, due partly to budget limitations, A Costume for Nicolás is a 2D, hand-drawn creation. Rivero wanted the tale to resemble a children’s book painted with watercolors and with purple as the dominant hue, which he felt added a playful finish. A small team between those at Fotosíntesis in Mexico City and two studios in nearby Puebla, Peek-Paax and Mokiki, were in charge of bringing this cause-driven idea to colorful fruition.

What amazes Rivero about animation as a medium is the possibility of tackling any topic and reaching a large audience because of how it’s presented. His intention here was to prevent the work from coming across as emotional blackmail. Down syndrome is not the defining aspect of Nicolás’ journey. It’s just an element of his whole that one discovers along the way without it being overt.

“The strongest messages are those we receive in a subtle or subconscious manner,” Rivero added. “Kids are born without prejudices against others; it’s us, the adults, who complicate things when we make an issue about our differences.”

A Costume for Nicolás premiered at the Stuttgart Festival of Animated Film and will be released in Mexico later this year.