Everything You Need to Know About Pixar’s ‘Coco’
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.
Why did director Lee Unkrich want to make a movie about The Day of the Dead [Dia de los Muertos]? The filmmaker was drawn to the iconography of the holiday: the bold, bright colors and the festive atmosphere. Unkrich was also impressed by the reception of Pixar films in Mexico. Audiences there really embraced the Pixar brand– so Unkrich wanted to cater a film directly to this vocal audience.
- Co-writer/co-director Adrian Molina & Lee Unkrich traveled to Mexico to experience Dia de los Muertos first hand. The event, a welcoming of the dead to the land of the living, is a somber yet joyful celebration of loved ones lost. Families set up altars (known as ‘ofrendas’) decked with pictures of their ancestors and sprinkle marigold petals along the streets, guiding spirits to cemetery vigils. At night, the entire community comes out en mass to these cemeteries to celebrate their ancestor’s lives, keeping their memories ever in mind.
- Thematically – Coco focuses on people’s connection to their family across generations. For co-writer/co-director Adrian Molina, “It’s beautiful to feature a Mexican family and a Mexican protagonist…. It’s great to actually see yourself and your heritage represented on the screen.”
- How does Lee Unkrich reconcile making a film about Mexican culture given he’s a white guy from Ohio? Per Unkrich – “I knew I had to get it right. The last thing I wanted to do was make a film that felt like it was made by an outsider… I know I’m not Latino and that I’ll never be Latino; but I comforted myself in knowing that there are a lot of great films made by filmmakers not of the culture they were making the film about. I took the responsibility very seriously. It’s been great having Adrian [Molina] at my side and all the cultural consultants and the many Latino members of our crew… I hope we got it right. If we have any missteps, it wasn’t for lack of trying.”
- To make sure the film accurately reflects Mexican culture, Unkrich brought a number of cultural consultants into the development process. At Pixar, filmmakers screen rough cuts of their films every twelve weeks. Typically this is only an internal process, but for Coco – Unkrich expanded these screenings to include many prominent members of the Latino community. Sometimes these consultants would give fairly big notes – and Coco’s story would change as a result. As an example – Unkrich cited Abuelita, Miguel’s older grandmother in the film. Originally she carried a wooden spoon that she would whip out and beat people with it. One of the Mexican advisors said — “No – it should be her chancletas [flip-flops].” In the final film, Abuelita, now when provoked, will whip off her chancletas and hurl it at whoever offended her.
- Unkrich looked to pretty much every movie featuring an afterlife, but more in a ‘what not to do way’. Often films about the afterlife delve into a surreal or dream like logic; for Coco, however, it was important to remain grounded in a “sense of reality.” Unkrich wanted to always make sure there were rules to Coco’s ‘Land of the Dead.’
So what are those rules? “No gags.” Unkrich stressed, “No Starbones on the corner. Not that type of humor.” There needs to be a structure to the society of the dead. Whatever job you had when you died is the job that you have in the afterlife, “which might be great for some people and might suck for others…”
- The filmmakers struggled to find an interesting visual way to showcase how the dead travel to the land of the living. In early concepts – The City of the Dead appeared out of the end of alley, but that didn’t seem dramatic enough. From researching the holiday, Molina & Unkrich keyed in on the importance of the marigold petal – and from this detail crafted the Marigold Bridge – a bridge of flowers that connects the land of the living to The City of the Dead.
- Unkrich and Molina also struggled to physicalize their lead character’s primary motivation: his love of music. Coco hinges on understanding and relating to Miguel’s aspirations to become a singer. The kid deserts his family and travels to the land of the dead just to get his ancestor’s approval to pursue his vocation. If you don’t immediately understand and relate to Miguel’s motivation – then the entire film falls apart. In early cuts of Coco – Miguel would just literally say, “I want to play music.’ This, of course, felt too on the nose and rather expository. As a solution – the filmmakers thought perhaps Miguel could sing about his passion; but this felt tonally out of place considering Coco isn’t a traditional musical with characters breaking out into song. Finally Unkrich and Molina settled on one final solution: Miguel now has a secret room with his own ‘ofrenda’ to his music idol. The ofrenda physicalizes Miguel’s musical aspirations and conveys his motivations without any needless exposition.
- Is John Ratzenberger [who has appeared in every Pixar film thus far] in Coco? According to Unkrich: “We really struggled with [casting Ratzenberger], because as of this moment we have an all Latino cast; but I do have one line for him because I didn’t want to [break the tradition]. So we have an all Latino cast… plus John Ratzenberger.”
- Dante, Miguel’s companion dog during the film, is a xolo [a hairless] breed. Named after the Aztec god Xolotl, the xolo was believed to be a safeguard against evil spirits and a guide for the dead from this world to the next… So it’s pretty fitting then that Dante joins Miguel on his journey to The City of the Dead.
Character Supervisor Christian Hoffman looked to a number of previous Disney dogs as the basis for Dante’s animated performance: Dug from Up, Bolt from, well, Bolt, and The Tramp from Lady and the Trump.
- Lee Unkrich wanted Dante to have an extremely long tongue – a tongue that would often wrap around his face, other objects or just hang halfway to the ground. To animate this tongue, Hoffman looked at the movements and design of one other Pixar character: Hank, the octopus, from Finding Dory.
- Per Directing Animator Nick Rosario – in the original design of Dante, the dog was cross-eyed; but the animators felt really bad for the poor dog. They had already broken Dante’s ear, tail and teeth. Making Dante cross-eyed seemed like a bridge too far, so Dante’s eyesight was restored to normal for the final design.
- Nick Rosario screened an early cut of “Dante’s Lunch” – a short film, focusing on the titular dog. It’s fascinating to see just how much changed between the early cut and what was ultimately released. In the rough-cut, Dante is far more curious and self-aware. He knows the banana falls on his head and approaches the trash-bone much more cautiously; but Unkrich wanted Dante to be far less expressive. The mandate for Dante became – “The lights are on but nobodies home.” In the final cut of Dante’s Lunch, Dante’s a far more absent-minded Mr. Magoo-like character, completely unaware of his surroundings. You can watch the two-minute short here.
- In Coco, Pepita, a monstrous creature (part lizard, eagle, tiger & ram), tracks Miguel through The City of the Dead. This creature is modeled after ‘Alebrijes’ — the “Mexican action figure”. Pedro Lineras first came up with the concept of the ‘Alebrijes’ in 1936. The struggling piñata maker was bedridden, when he had a dream of all these mixed animals – ducks with tails, lions with wings, rhinos with beetle heads – surrounding him, chanting ‘Alebrijes’. Lineras spun this dream into a Mexican tradition, crafting bright, bold figurines of these creatures and selling them everywhere. Nowadays Alebrijes even have a whole mythology surrounding them: per folklore, they’re spirit guides, leading people on the right path.
The animators ran into two problems when animating talking skeletons: 1) How to make skeletons family-friendly? 2) How to convey emotions within a skeleton’s frame? The solution – it’s all in the eyes. By giving the skeleton’s extra large eyes (in the Coco-verse, the skeletons put decorated, glass eyes into their empty sockets), suddenly horrific looking skeletons become sort-of cute. The animators then filled in the skeletons with wigs, painted eyebrows and face paint – all making the skeletons far less nightmare inducing.
- For Gael Garcia Bernal’s huckster skeleton, the animators based his performance and movements on an unlikely source: Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) from Midnight Cowboy
- Gini Santos (a supervising animator) revealed that, having never animated skeletons before, the Pixar animators constantly debated the dead’s proper movements. Should the bones stick together when moving? Or should they be more elastic and bounce? Judging by the finished film, it seems like Unkrich and the Pixar animators decided on something in between – the bones bounce a little as the skeletons walk but not to a distracting degree.
- Finally – Lee Unkrich has a penchant for sneaking in references to The Shining (his favorite film) throughout his Pixar features… So how many references to The Shining are in Coco? Per Unkrich, “There’s a few in there – I think about three…” Unkrich, though, wouldn’t elaborate on what those three references are or when they appear in the film.
Coco opens everywhere November 22nd