Coco is something of an outlier in Pixar’s upcoming film slate. Following two sequels (Finding Dory & Cars 3) and preceding two more sequels (The Incredibles 2 & Toy Story 4), Coco will be the only original Pixar feature from the span of 2016 to 2019. Unlike a Toy Story or a Cars, Coco isn’t a known quantity. Heck – up to two weeks ago, the only thing I knew for sure was that Coco was set around Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), other than that – zilch.
Pixar, though, seems to be aware of this lack of awareness, inviting a whole slew of press (including myself) out to their headquarters in Emeryville. Less than twenty-four hours later, I’d seen Coco’s first thirty-five minutes and met with the filmmakers, animators and producers behind the film. Now – I can pretty much answer any question about Coco.
Set during Dia de los Muertos, Coco focuses on Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy at a crossroads in his life: his parents want him to join the family shoe-business, but all Miguel wants is to be a musician like his dead idol Ernesto de La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). This is especially problematic since music of any kind is FORBIDDEN in the family. Yet Miguel still attempts to pursue his musical passion right under his parents & grandparent’s nose, designing his own makeshift guitar. Of course, Miguel is soon found out, his guitar shattered into a hundred pieces – thus prompting the boy to run away and pursue his career on his own.
Miguel, now in desperate need of guitar, decides to break into de la Cruz’s tomb and steal the dead crooner’s guitar… which, turns out, is a big ‘no-no’ on Dia de los Muertos. The second Miguel touches the guitar, he’s immediately thrust into The City of the Dead, where he must reunite with his deceased ancestors and musical idol to get back to the land of the living.
The first thirty-five minutes of Coco (oddly enough) feels like a cross between The Wizard of Oz and Back to the Future. Miguel, like Dorothy, yearns to leave his family and pursue a bigger, more exciting life. He’s then propelled into an otherworldly land (The City of the Dead substituting for Oz), and to get back home, must seek out the approval of Music Icon Ernesto de la Cruz (aka The Wizard). Along the way, Miguel’s joined by a hairless dog (Toto) and a wisecracking skeletal huckster (Gael García Bernal basically channeling The Scarecrow). Meanwhile, the longer Miguel spends in The City of the Dead, the more his body begins to change into a skeleton – his fingers the first to become all bone (a la Marty’s disappearing hand in Back to the Future).
It’s a smart template to ping on – and the first thirty-minutes of Coco flew by in what seemed like a matter of minutes. I was struck by how economically each scene dealt with a ton of exposition – in the first act, Coco explains the holiday Dia de los Muertos, sets up Miguel’s family dynamics, introduces The City of the Dead, and establishes the rules there & what Miguel needs to do to get the hell out. It’s a lot but Coco makes it seem effortless. Sure, the opening act doesn’t achieve the same emotional heights of Up or the experimental audacity of Wall-E, but there’s something special in telling a story as soundly and proficiently as possible.
Over the course of my day at Pixar, I learned a ton about the making of the picture – how the story developed, the stress put on accurately representing Mexican culture, the difficulties in animating skeletons, and a whole lot more. Below are bullet point highlights of everything I learned about Pixar’s Coco.