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A Musical Extravaganza: Pixar’s ‘Coco’ Puts Family First in Día de las Muertos Adventure

Director Lee Unkrich, writer and co-director Adrian Molina, and producer Darla K. Anderson reflect on the making of their multi-generational story about the power of family relationships.

‘Coco’ © 2017 Disney•Pixar. All rights reserved.

Pixar’s 19th animated feature, Coco, is a Day of the Dead-themed musical extravaganza directed by Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) alongside writer and co-director Adrian Molina (story artist, Monsters University, Toy Story 3) and producer Darla K. Anderson (Monsters Inc., Toy Story 3).

A multi-generational story about the power of family relationships, Coco introduces Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), who lives in a lively Mexican village but comes from a family of shoemakers that may be the town’s only music-hating household. For generations, the Riveras have banned music because they believe they’ve been cursed by it; as their family history goes, Miguel’s great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife decades earlier to follow his own dreams of performing, leaving Imelda (Miguel’s great-great-grandmother) to take control as the matriarch of the now-thriving Rivera line and declare music dead to the family forever.

But Miguel harbors a secret desire to seize his musical moment, inspired by his favorite singer of all time, the late Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). It’s only after Miguel discovers an amazing link between himself and De la Cruz that he takes action to emulate the famous singer and, in doing so, accidentally enters the Land of the Dead.

Coco is about a 12-year-old boy with big dreams,” Unkrich begins. “It’s about a hardworking family with great traditions and a lot of love. But what’s so cool about Coco is that the boy could be my son. That family could live next door. The sweet, bossy grandmother who insists on one more bite might be your grandma. There’s something familiar to us all in this story. That’s what makes it so special.”

“Miguel feels like he has to choose between his passion for music and his love for his family,” Molina adds. “He really wants to share his talents with his family -- to prove to them that making music is both beautiful and honorable. But he goes about it the wrong way.”

In the underworld, Miguel encounters the souls of his own family -- generations of long-dead but no less vivacious Rivera ancestors, including great-great-grandmother Imelda. Still, given the opportunity to roam around the Land of the Dead, Miguel decides to track down De la Cruz himself. He teams up with a friendly trickster named Hector (Gael García Bernal) to find De la Cruz, earn his family’s blessing to perform, and return to the Land of the Living before time runs out.

“Darla, and Adrian, and I all worked on Toy Story 3 together,” the director recounts about the genesis of the movie. “And when we finished that film, I started to think about what was next, and I had a few different ideas that I was kicking around. And one of them was the idea of telling a story set against Día de las Muertos. I had always been interested in the tradition, and I spent some time doing some research, and really trying to understand more than I already knew. And the more that I dug in, the more that I learned about how central family is to this celebration, and that Día de las Muertos is all about this obligation that we all have to remember our loved ones, and to pass their stories along. And I just really started to see the potential to tell a unique story, to tell a story that could only be told in animation, that could be visually dazzling, but also had the potential to have a real emotional core to it. And that was really kind of the beginning of this journey.”

-- On ANIMATIONWorld: Concept Artist Ana Ramírez Brings Homegrown Touch to Pixar’s ‘Coco’ -- 

The trio next traveled to Mexico on the first of what proved to be many lengthy research trips to learn more about its culture and traditions, “spending a lot of time with many beautiful families,” Unkrich notes. “As soon as we decided that we wanted to tell a story that takes place in Mexico, we immediately booked our first research trip. Over the course of three years, we visited museums, markets, plazas, workshops, churches, haciendas and cemeteries throughout Mexico. Families welcomed us into their homes and taught us about the foods they enjoy, the music they listen to, their livelihoods and their traditions. Most importantly, we witnessed the importance they place on family.”

The filmmakers collaborated with a team of cultural consultants, including political cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, playwright Octavio Solis, and heritage and arts author, independent producer and advocate Marcela Davison Avilés. The consultants, whose families all hail from Mexico, weighed in on everything from character wardrobe and sets décor to the color palette and even dialogue -- encouraging a fluid blend of Spanish and English within the script in a way that required no translation.

According to Avilés, who also curates and produces Mexican heritage cultural arts programming, the most important part of the filmmakers’ quest for an accurate and respectful representation of the Mexican culture in Coco was the awareness that it needed to happen. “Then they acted on that awareness,” she says. “They took the time to try to understand. They listened to experts from many different fields -- archeologists, musicians, cultural advocates. And they embarked on numerous research trips. It was all done with utmost sincerity, respect and humbleness.”

Coco is set in Mexico in two distinct, yet parallel worlds: the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead. For most of the year, these two worlds exist separately but harmoniously side by side. But every year, for one day, they come together in a magical way. “Día de Muertos is like a big family reunion that spans the divide between the living and the dead,” says Unkrich. “But it isn’t about grieving; it’s a celebration. It’s about remembering those family members and loved ones who’ve passed, and keeping them close.”

Although these worlds were designed in direct contrast to each other, Molina acknowledges that they actually share key characteristics. “They’re both filled with color, music and joy,” he notes. “The characters -- whether living or dead -- are optimistic and completely devoted to their families.”

Anderson, meanwhile, has a long-held admiration for the efforts of Pixar artists to populate these unique worlds. “Somewhere along the line, these characters became real to me,” she imparts. “They’re unique and are imbued with these very specific personalities. It would be impossible not to fall in love with them. We set out to create characters that are believable and empathetic, transcendent and interesting. They’re larger than life -- real, yet utterly fantastical.”

Unkrich knew that he wanted to have as much contrast between the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead as possible. “We looked at ways we could differentiate the worlds. One was time of day -- most of the action in Santa Cecilia happens during the day, while it’s nighttime in the Land of the Dead,” he says.

“Another way we separated the worlds was through color,” Unkrich continues. “Given the holiday and the iconography, we knew the Land of the Dead had to be a visually vibrant and colorful place, so we deliberately designed Santa Cecilia to be more muted. It’s certainly not depressing or devoid of color, especially since the holiday is happening, and we knew from the beginning that we would embrace Día de Muertos and everything that goes with it.”

For the Land of the Living and Santa Cecilia, the filmmakers were able to find inspiration in the vibrant towns they visited in Mexico. But when it came time to create the Land of the Dead, the rules were much less defined. “I didn’t want to have just a free-for-all, wacky world,” Unkrich stresses. “There needed to be some logic to it. We realized that it would need to be ever-expanding because new residents would arrive regularly, if you think about it. So we asked ourselves, ‘What would a world look like that was being added onto constantly?’”

Ultimately, the Pixar team looked to Mexico City’s ancient history for inspiration for The Land of Dead. The city was originally built on the site of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, which was surrounded by water. And while that water has mostly disappeared, artists found the idea very compelling -- a city literally sprung from the water. “That lent itself to this idea of towers,” Unkrich says. “Almost like coral growing up and out representing layers of history.”

The music of Coco also supports the layers of history that the film comprises, blending an original score from composer Michael Giacchino, who wrote the Oscar-winning score for Pixar’s 2009 film Up, with traditional Mexican songs that serve as source music to bring Miguel’s town of Santa Cecilia to life.

That source music can be heard in the Plaza -- played by mariachis, a jarocho group on the bandstand, and guitar players Miguel approaches in his quest to prove his talent. A mix of traditional and contemporary Mexican music gives ambiance to several scenes.

But while the filmmakers wanted the film to honor its setting, they also wanted to provide an unexpected quality. “We encouraged the team to be true to traditional Mexican music, but gave them the freedom to embrace new sounds,” Unkrich says.

Coco has music in its DNA,” Unkrich continues. “Music shapes the film. Some characters are musicians, while others want nothing to do with it.”

The Rivera family’s ban on music did not deter the Coco filmmakers, however. “Our main character, Miguel, is so passionate about music and he is really talented, so his journey to pursue his dream is naturally filled with music,” Molina observes. “Even though music isn’t allowed in his home, Miguel finds inspiration in the musicians who perform in his hometown plaza. Santa Cecilia -- home of superstar Ernesto de la Cruz -- is so full of music, it inspires Miguel to want to be a musician.”

“At the end of the day this film is honestly about a big family reunion,” Anderson concludes. “I hope that people come to the film with family. We invited a lot of our family to the premiere, and it’s such a meaningful experience to watch this film in a multi-generational pack. This film has very universal themes and so ultimately I have seen that people do take away that we are so much more alike than we are different on this planet. And if I can get you come with your family that might resonate. Hopefully.”

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.