Watch a video essay on Disney’s attempts to represent cultures musically.

One of the reasons for Coco’s massive success has arguably been due to its sensitive tribute to Mexican culture. So how were its American filmmakers able to reflect this within the music of the film? It helps to look at how Disney’s depiction of cultures through music has evolved historically.

Video essayist Sideways explores the company’s musical experiments to express cultural backgrounds respectfully in “How Disney Uses Language.” He explains that one of the complications of ethnomusicology (the study of the music of different cultures) stems from the complexities of text setting. Because languages stress certain syllables in speech to convey meaning, the music has to be written to adapt to that mold. (Consider that the song would sound very different if we sang hapPY birthDAY TO you as opposed to HAPpy BIRTHday to YOU.) Sideways explains that this is why so many song translations sound awkward: their melodies aren’t designed to mesh with other languages neatly.

This expresses some of the difficulties that the writers of the songs of Coco faced. For a movie whose primary themes are both music and Mexican culture, they needed to find a way to integrate them for English-speaking audiences.

To do so, they followed the template carved by the Disney film Moana. As the video essay explains, Moana used both the Polynesian language of Tokelauan and English in the song “We Know the Way.” The song seamlessly switches to English midway while overcoming the challenge of maintaining its musical style. By doing so, Sideways argues, the gap is bridged between the characters and its audience extremely effectively. I think the same could be said for Coco, whose cast speaks a mixture of both Spanish and English in the film. In three of its songs, “Un Poco Loco,” “The World Es Mi Familia,” and “Proud Corazón,” the filmmakers similarly integrate the two languages seamlessly. Through the genius of its songwriters, the music of Coco thereby manages to add another layer to its already significant emotional resonance.

Watch the video essay below.

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