Pixar’s newest film approaches the Latinx traditions within a Mexican tale of honor, family and celebration.
About 45 miles from the South Bay, in an industrial part of Emeryville, lies the headquarters of Pixar Animation Studios. As you enter the large open “Steve Jobs Building”, you are greeted by large Lego Woody and Buzz replicas, and a glass case showcasing some of their past awards.
One new feature is the ‘papel picado’ (elaborate, colorful paper crafts seen at fiestas) that lines the common area, along with artwork featuring the animation studios newest film, the Day of the Dead centric ‘Coco’.
Although its release date is November 22nd, there is already enough information and work done on the film to gauge that this It’s by far one of Pixar’s most impressive feats yet. By taking their tried and true storytelling and visual feast approach, they have sought to bring to life the world of Mexico and its traditions with inventive design and tons of research.
The story of ‘Coco’ is both the story of family and music, bridging the gap between the two by cultivating a story of what it takes to follow one’s dreams and where the line is drawn if it affects one’s family.
Lee Unkrich (Director), Adrian Molina (Writer and Co-Director), Darla K. Anderson (Producer) were the leaders in Pixar’s newest project, most known for their work in ‘Toy Story 3’ (Unkrich and Anderson) and ‘Monster’s University’ (Molina).
Their vision for ‘Coco’ is rooted in tradition and capturing the look and sound of what Mexico is really like.
Director Lee Unkrich states, “It’s truly been a labor of love, we were really inspired by the trips we made down to Mexico, the beauty and the celebration. Our film raises the themes of family, remembrance, and those all, at their core, set the holiday and they just infuse their way into this entire film.”
The beginning of this film, back in a pitch by Unkrich to head of Pixar John Lasseter in 2011, was basic in that it would be about music, and the Day of the Dead. According to Unkrich, Lasseter loved the idea, and that began the process of creating the world of the unnamed project at the time, from scratch. This also meant a lot of research would go into it. To create a movie about a specific culture and traditions surrounding it would mean treading some unfamiliar ground, and to that extent it needed to be respectful.
“I’m not Latino, and I’ll never be Latino! I can’t change that…but I hope we got it right,” says Unkrich.
So far it seems that the research and team that has worked on the film thus far has gotten it right.
Footage screened to media in August showed a world that I personally did not expect to be so accurate and magnificent. I will wait for final judgement in November, but the finished footage of the film fills me, as a person of Mexican descent, with a wonder and nostalgia that not many cultural themed films get just right.
One thing to note is that the voice cast is 100% Latinx, maybe the first time ever in a North American film, let alone an animated one. The voice actors include Gael García Bernal, Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Renée Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Jaime Camil, Sofía Espinosa, Luis Valdez, Edward James Olmos, Alfonso Arau, Gabriel Iglesias, Cheech Marin, and Blanca Araceli. Some newcomers and some heavy hitters in film will carry the films speech, but there still needs a lot of effort that Pixar took in recreating a Mexican world, one that is known to people, and one that is left to the imagination and speculation.
The process of creating a film about Mexican tradition and music involved a lot of advisors, many of them members of the Mexican community involved in art, film, music and theater. Unkrich said that when the advisors were first brought into Pixar on this project, some ‘were weary’. This is what may have prompted Pixar to involve these consultants in nearly every step of the way, so the finished product would be real, and honest to the culture.
Adrian Molina, the Writer and Co-Director who is also of Mexican descent, had this to say: “We’ve been working on this film with a great group of cultural consultants and we’ve got Marcela Aviles, Lalo Alcaraz, and Octavio Solis. They’ve been with us for most of this journey, really lending their voices and creating an environment where you can create a story that is vibrant and passionate and really true to the culture in which it takes place in and we’re super thankful to have them here as a resource and as collaborators.”
Aviles, a diversity strategist, Alcaraz, a political cartoonist, and Solis, a playwright, were the first consultants in Pixar history to be allowed to join in the very close to the vest showings of the film as it went through different stages of production.
Alcaraz, a political cartoonist, was vocally against the film years ago when Disney filed a trademark request for the term “Día de los Muertos” in 2013. This backlash fortunately settled down, Disney apologized, and eventually brought Alcaraz and others onboard to help guide the film from the beginning.
Years later, their work, along with that of the talented musicians and Pixar animators have yielded some great results.
The Tune of Mexico
The story sets up a musical adventure where the lead character of Miguel, voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez, is a boy living in a small town in Mexico (inspired by the real Mexican town of Janitzio, in the state of Michoacán) where music is very much part of life, except in his own family.
Miguel’s family runs a local shoe-making business, and although the characters of the family are humorous and have a lot of great characteristics, a love for music is not one of them.
Adrian Molina Co-Director and writer says, “It’s a project were we really wanted to get talking about music early on in the process and we’re all storytellers here and to be able to weave music into the story just from the very beginning has been very fun for us and creating really great chemistry between the artists and the musicians.”
Songwriter and arranger Germaine Franco, musical consultant and musician Camilo Lara, and composer Michael Giacchino led the musical team, bringing in their various strengths and connections to bring the three portions of ‘Coco’s’ music to life: the score, original songs, and the background music of the world.
“Our main character Miguel, his drive in this story is to be a musician. His passion, his fuel is this desire to express his talent and express his emotions through music. The problem is he grows up in a family where for historical reasons they hold a grudge against music and don’t’ allow it. We wanted to create a language for this character where music expressed what he wanted and drove him through the story,” says Molina.
The Land of the Dead
The film mostly takes place in the Land of the Dead, where skeletons roam and festivities never seem to end. Alebrijes, Mexican folk art represented by all kinds of fantasy creatures, are seen flying around and are the protectors and guides of those that live in the land.
“We looked at everything that we could think of that has the afterlife and in most cases it shows it’s an interesting thing. We have a desire to know what’s beyond and so we try to keep it in reality rather than (having) ghosts, and have a logic to our land of the dead,” said Unkrich.
Story Artist Dean Kelly adds that Miguel, “finds himself in the Land of the Dead, and he needs his family to get back. Early on we realized that there was a promise of exploring ancestors and memories in a world brought to life by animation. There were very universal themes of family and the question of what it means to be part of the family.”
This film is taking shape rather well, and has the opportunity to showcase a living (but kind of dead), breathing, cultural adventure which can hopefully find a place in the hearts of animation fans and those that are enamored by its universal themes of family and remembrance. In just two short months we will see how Miguel’s dreams of music and his lessons of family lead him through his own growth, and through the Land of the Dead.
‘Coco’ is out in theaters November 22nd, 2017.