“Coco,” Pixar’s love letter to Mexico and the Day of the Dead festival, couldn’t come at a better time for the animation studio and the country. It’s Pixar’s first original movie in two years and offers a vital cultural remedy to Trump’s nationalistic fervor (with an all-Latino cast that includes “Mozart in the Jungle’s” Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Renée Victor, and newcomer Anthony Gonzalez).
“In a time when the political climate seems very much divisive, it fills my heart with hope that a masterful filmmaker like Lee Unkrich is using his and Pixar’s considerable talents to showcase the people and culture of our beloved Mexico,” said Jorge Guitierrez, director of the first Day of the Dead animated feature, “The Book of Life,” produced by Guillermo del Toro in 2014. “I will be there on ‘Coco’s’ opening night with my whole family, living and remembered.”
Earlier this month, IndieWire got a sneak peek of the first 35 minutes of “Coco,” which promises to be Pixar’s most culturally-diverse human family drama yet. It’s about 12-year-old Miguel (Gonzalez), an aspiring guitarist from a rural Mexican town, whose family of shoemakers has banned music. After borrowing the skeleton guitar of his great-great grandfather and musical icon, Ernesto de la Cruz (Bratt), Miguel gets transported to the Land of the Dead during Día de los Muertos, where he tries to reclaim his family heritage and return home with the help of trickster skeleton Hector (Bernal).
Getting Embedded in Mexican Culture
For Unkrich, his fascination with Day of the Dead intensified after making the Oscar-winning “Toy Story 3” in 2010. During a visit to the EPCOT Mexico exhibit with his family, he reveled in the folk art. “It’s a beautiful celebration,” he said. Unkrich then pitched his Day of the Dead idea in 2011 to Disney/Pixar’s chief creative officer John Lasseter.
“I’m Jewish and we grew up with the notion of the Yahrzeit, the yearly remembrance,” said Unkrich, but, in my mind, it was always this somber remembrance, and there’s just something so refreshing and vital about actively passing down stories and remembering with laughter who people were, and ritualizing it at home and surrounding yourself with photos of them in a vibrant way.”
But the Day of the Dead project immediately became steeped in controversy when Disney tried to trademark “Día de los Muertos” in 2013. The Latino community fumed, including Chicano artist Lalo Alcaraz (who created a blistering poster with a scary, skeletal Mickey Mouse parody). So Disney withdrew the trademark request and Pixar quickly reached out to the Latino community for support, including Alcarez. This also helped quell concerns that “Coco” was going to be too similar to “The Book of Life.” But, aside from sharing some common visual elements associated with the festival, “Coco” bore no relation to “The Book of Life,” and was in development before Unkrich even heard of the rival project.
The Cultural Consultant Outreach
Yet, in an unprecedented move, Pixar created a cultural consultant group, which included Alcarez, playwright Octavio Solís, and Marcela Davison Aviles, managing director and executive producer of Camino Arts. That’s because research trips to the Mexican cities of Oaxaca and Guanajuato (inspiration for the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead) weren’t enough. Pixar realized that it needed to do more due diligence to authenticate the flavor of its fictional Santa Cecilia town and the ethnic behavior of Miguel and his family.
So, while involving every available Latino and Mexican-American animator at the studio (storyboard artist Adrian Molina wrote the script and was promoted to co-director last year), Pixar encouraged the cultural consultants to help get the details right and to avoid stereotypes and cliches. “Pixar embedded themselves in Mexican culture and then they embedded us in the animation process,” said Solís. “We were invited to every screening and provided notes.”
Added Molina: “It went all the way from lines of dialogue [about what they might or might not say] to even the way the family dynamic worked.” That included being more physically intimate and expressive, or, when the stern grandma (Victor) hits people with a shoe instead of a spoon.
“We had versions where Miguel was very vocal about how he disagreed with his family and how he wanted to be a musician,” said Molina. “And from those screenings and those conversations with the cultural consultants, all of the feedback was: You might feel those feelings, but, in a Mexican family, you wouldn’t say them (it’s disrespectful to go against the elders). You would just keep it to yourself and do it in secret. And so that helped us to find an empathetic kid where you understood how much he desired to do this and he had no voice to express that.”
It also set up the opportunity for Miguel to connect with his ancestors in the Land of the Dead and to heal a family rift. “It’s not a distant connection but a chance to have a relationship because of those stories,” Molina said. “Not just repeat tales but to make that part of an actual connection. All of a sudden, it brings it to the forefront of why it’s so important.”
The Meaning of Death
But one of the most important contributions of the cultural consultants was helping Pixar figure out the meaning of death as it relates to the Land of the Dead, a magnificently stacked Victorian metropolis, designed by production designer Harley Jessup (“Monsters, Inc.”) and lit by cinematographer Danielle Feinberg (“WALL-E”) with 7 million specially-coded lights.
“If you’re in the Land of the Dead, what are the stakes there if everybody’s dead already and no one can get hurt?,” asked Unkrich. According to Mexican culture, there are multiple deaths: the physical act of dying, the burial, and when you are no longer remembered.
“We then made that a central idea in the Land of the Dead,” said Unkrich. “They’re not there forever, there’s somewhere else beyond, and the moment that nobody remembers you anymore, you cease to exist in that world. Our cultural consultants helped us navigate how we exactly express that.”