COCO set visit

Is it possible to “Pixar-ify” an entire cultural tradition and transform it into a family-friendly, merchandise-ready movie? Those are the fears that some might have about Coco, Pixar’s upcoming film centers around Mexico’s beloved Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos. But those fears can be put to rest, as Coco is as respectful in its treatment of Día de los Muertos as it is eager to share the joyous Mexican holiday with the rest of the world.

Coco follows a Mexican boy named Miguel (voiced by relative newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) whose overwhelming passion for music drives him to disobey his family — who, after a traumatizing incident from the past, has banned all music in their household — and attempt to prove himself as a musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). But a series of rash decisions causes him to be stuck in the Land of the Dead on Día de los Muertos. There, he teams up with a ragamuffin skeleton named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) on a mission to find de la Cruz, who he believes can help him return to the land of the living.

As fantastical a story as it sounds, Coco actually touches on more universal values than you would think: family, nostalgia, music, and adorable dogs. But amazingly, it tells this tale in a bilingual tongue, with the setting placed firmly in the fictional Mexican town of Santa Cecilia and its afterworld counterpart. The cast is entirely Latino, and Spanish phrases are sprinkled throughout the movie — with nary a subtitle to be seen. But rather than being alienating, these aspects of multiculturalism only serves to make Coco more authentic, serving as a bridge to a culture that hasn’t often been explored in mainstream animated films.

Earlier this month, I visited Pixar to get an early glimpse of the footage of Coco, as well as insight into the process of Coco’s long journey to the big screen from its directors, animators, and artists.


Family First

If the words family were uttered one more time in the course of Coco or during the press day, we may have had to crack open a bottle of Corona and give Vin Diesel a call. But in all seriousness, family serves as the crux of the story of Coco, and both the driving force and obstacle behind Miguel’s every decision.

The lead story artist on Coco, Dean Kelly, told us that family was always going to be essential to the movie even in its development stages:

Early on we knew [the film] had at its core some really universal ideas, and one of them was what it means to be part of the family. So these elements have always been key to the story that we wanted to tell.

Miguel hails from a multi-generational family on both his living and dead side, which co-director and screenwriter Adrian Molina stressed as being of the utmost importance “because it connects to this theme of connecting across generations.” Populating the Rivera family, who run a shoemaking workshop, in the land of the living are Miguel’s beloved great-grandmother and the titular character of the film, Mamá Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía), his overbearing Abuelita (Renée Victor), and his loving and soft-spoken Papá (Jaime Camil) and Mamá (Sofía Espinosa).

Meanwhile in the land of the dead, Miguel is reunited with even more family members in the skeletal forms of his great-great-grandmother Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach), his aunt Tía Rosita ( Selene Luna), his late great-grandfather Papá Julio (Alfonso Arau), and Miguel’s late identical twin unclesTío Oscar and Tío Felipe (Herbert Siguenza).

If that seems like a lot of faces to remember when it’s not even your family reunion, Coco director Lee Unkrich revealed that he wanted Miguel to have an even bigger family to start with as families would get only exponentially bigger with each generation. But he admitted it would be unwieldy, so it “came down to finding a nice assortment visually and with their personality types.” In fact, Unkrich revealed that it was the classic Pixar film A Bug’s Life that taught the crew how to scale back on large ensemble movies.

Molina added that having such an expansive family feels inherently Mexican, drawing on his own experiences as a Mexican-American:

So much of the film is about family and your connection to family, and in my experience in my upbringing, it’s true of my Mexican-American community that it’s very important. And to be true to the fact that families aren’t always functional. But I think that’s a very universal thing, I think a lot of people are going to take that away. But one really beautiful thing about this film is to be able to feature a Mexican family, and to be able to feature Mexican protagonists. And I think there’s something really beautiful and necessary to be able to see yourself on screen, see yourself as the hero. And for a Mexican-American or Mexican family to go to it together and have that experience, I think that would be a unique thing that they could share when they go to see the movie.

Continue Reading Coco Set Visit: Pixar’s Newest Film Tears Down Cultural Walls To Tell a Universal Story

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