At a time when we need bridges instead of walls, Pixar’s “Coco” offers the best possible unification for our country, with its beautiful, musical, and heartfelt ode to Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), and will be hard to beat for the Oscar.
But above and beyond its authentic cultural trappings and fresh twist on a “Back to the Future”-like buddy comedy, “Coco” is a wondrous celebration of family and remembrance, featuring an all-Latino cast that includes “Mozart in the Jungle’s” Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Renée Victor, and newcomer Anthony Gonzalez.
Continuing a recent Pixar trend devoted to mid-life crisis stories, “Coco” concerns 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).
The Cultural Consultants
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And Pixar turned controversy to advantage after Disney unsuccessfully tried to trademark “Día de los Muertos” in 2013. In an unprecedented move, Pixar created a cultural consultant group, which included Chicano artist Lalo Alcarez, playwright Octavio Solís, and Marcela Davison Aviles, managing director and executive producer of Camino Arts. In addition to involving every available Latino and Mexican-American animator at the studio (storyboard artist Adrian Molina wrote the script and was promoted to co-director), this helped authenticate the flavor of its fictional Santa Cecilia town and the ethnic behavior of Miguel and his family.
“The more we learned from them about so many aspects of the culture and traditions, that ended up helping us indirectly because it was always our goal to tell a story that could only be told during Día de los Muertos,” said director Lee Unkrich (the Oscar-winning “Toy Story 3”).
This included source music, score (by Michael Giacchino), and songs (including “Remember Me” from the Oscar-winning Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez), resulting in a diverse tapestry of Mexican traditions, as well as the presence of the colorful guardian, Pepita, a magical creature based on Mexican folk art sculpture (alebrije).
Family as a Positive and Negative
“There was also a particular aspect in this film about the family and how they’re both the antagonist and the solution to Miguel’s problem,” Molina said. “It’s an important structure of a Latino or Mexican family, and if you just go full antagonist, it’s not true to the love that you feel growing up in this family. And if you go full support, it all of a sudden destroys the tension. There’s no conflict.
“And so one of the most informative aspects of having these meetings, where we were all talking about our families, is the abuelita [grandmother], who loves you to death but who’s also afraid for your soul. So you can play her both ways and have that be true to the experience and still serve your purposes as both a positive and a negative.”
The Land of the Dead
Meanwhile, the two biggest design and animation challenges were the creation of the Land of the Dead (with its marigold bridge) and humanizing skeletons. The vertical, Victorian architecture of the Land of the Dead, built on the foundation of the past, contained 7 million lights automatically placed with special coding. The skeletons were made expressive with lips, eyes, teeth, an assortment of cheek bones, custom face paint, and added jiggle. This was a rare example of breaking Pixar’s truth in materials mantra.
“It’s a world under constant construction because people are dying and they need places for them to live,” Unkrich said.
The Importance of Remembrance
But the most important aspect of “Coco” was related to ancestry and remembrance: “One of the reasons Adrian stepped up from being a storyboard artist to writer and co-director was he came to us with the notion of Miguel needing to seek his family’s blessing to get out of the world,” added Unkrich.
And what they learned from their research was the idea of three deaths: when your heart stops, when you’re buried, and when you’re forgotten. That raised the stakes for survival in the Land of the Dead and also provided the takeaway about family and remembrance.
“This film has completely reinforced the idea of staying connected and setting out the photos and remembering and telling stories,” said producer Darla K. Anderson. “It was a profound experience that underscored and enhanced my beliefs.”
“What it brings to the forefront is that those stories are there for you to discover if you only think to ask,” Molina said. “And I love that this celebration gives a reason to ask because once those stories are gone, they’re gone.”
“While my parents are still living, I need to capture their stories so that they’re passed along,” said Unkrich. “It really comes down to embracing what the core of Día de los Muertos is about.”