The Disney•Pixar animated feature Coco is an absolutely perfect love letter to family that will make you laugh and cry, want to know more about your heritage, and celebrate where you came from. Despite a generations-old ban on music, 12-year-old Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), and in an act of desperation to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself in the Land of the Dead, a stunning world filled with color and beauty. Once there, he meets the charming Héctor (voiced by Gael García Bernal), who helps Miguel learn the real story behind his family history before he returns home.
At the film’s press junket, Collider got the opportunity to chat with director Lee Unkrich, co-director Adrian Molina and producer Darla K. Anderson about the film’s biggest story changes, why the film was ultimately named Coco, how Frida Kahlo ended up animated, never overshadowing Miguel’s story, the biggest technical challenge of the film, and deciding on the look for the Land of the Dead.
Collider: After I saw this film, I called it “an absolutely perfect love letter to family,” but animated features have a long journey to go on before they get to the point of perfection. How much of a labor of love was this movie and what were the biggest story changes, along the way?
LEE UNKRICH: We certainly worked really hard on it. We spent six years making the movie, but we spent four years of that, if not more, reiterating and refining the story. We started off in a very different place, at the very beginning of our journey. I just had this notion of telling this story set against Día de los Muertos, but we weren’t quite sure what that was going to be. The very first story that we tried to put up was a story that we realized we were telling from an outside perspective. We were telling a story that was about grief, in some ways, and letting go, and we realized that that, thematically, was completely antithetical to what Día de los Muertos is all about. It’s about the obligation that we have to never let go, to always remember, to remember joyfully, and to pass along the stories of those we loved. That was a big change that we made, early on, where we scraped down to the studs and started over again. It was at that point that we really started embracing fully the idea of family being a central part of the story we were telling. It was also the point at which we started embracing music as being a big part of the story we were telling.
DARLA K. ANDERSON: Because family is central to celebrating the holiday, it was always right in front of our faces, the whole time. When Adrian [Molina] stepped up, as co-writer, he really started leaning into the themes of family, in an even stronger way than we were.
Since it’s not an obvious choice, was Coco always the title you wanted for this film, or did you go through any other titles?
UNKRICH: We didn’t have any other titles. Coco was always our code name for the movie. That happens sometimes, where we have a code name and we end up falling in love with it. That was the case with Toy Story. That was never supposed to be the name of that movie. It’s a toy story. And that happened on Brave, as well. Very early on, one of the titles we considered was Día De Los Muertos. It was when we had registered that as a possible title that we ran into some early unfortunate friction that we then apologized for and moved on, and ultimately settled on Coco as our title.
What led you to include Frida Kahlo in the story?
ADRIAN MOLINA: That was very much inspired by the fact that Miguel is this musician and artist, but he doesn’t really have anyone in his life that can help him down that path. He’s looking for a role model. He’s looking for someone that will encourage him, and he doesn’t have that in his family. We thought, what a wonderful opportunity, if he’s going into this Land of the Dead, to feature artistic icons of Mexican cinema, Mexican art and Mexican history, and have them be the ones who give him the feedback and the game plan that he needs to pursue his art. Frida Kahlo was the first and one of the most prominent in this story of someone he could look to and see someone who used art to change the world, and she could give him a little encouragement on the way forward.
There are so many fun characters throughout this film, including Dante and the cat, neither of which are exactly what you expect. Did you ever have to keep yourselves in check, not to overshadow Miguel’s story?
MOLINA: We’re always so focused on guiding the audience through the main character’s journey that whenever it came to this really great ensemble cast of characters, Dante included, we always wanted to use them to make Miguel’s story more rich. Dante is a Xolo dog, which is the national dog of Mexico, and there’s this mythology in Mexican folklore, associated with them, that says as you travel to the Land of the Dead, you need a Xolo dog to guide you. Those are all elements of the culture and of our research that, story wise, really leant themselves to giving a richness and a specificity to Miguel’s story. I’d never say that there was a moment that they were pulling attention away from that story. We were just always trying to figure out what we could emphasize, from our research, that would help make this journey interesting, challenging and emotional for Miguel.
ANDERSON: In my mind, Miguel always had a strong emphasis and spotlight. It was just trying to make sure that all of the other family members and characters got their day in the sun. We knew each one was unique.
Do you guys have any personal favorite characters, that weren’t present in the film, from the beginning, but that came into the picture much later in the process?
MOLINA: For me, Chicharrón. He was in a very early screening, as a completely different character, and then he was out of the movie. But then, we found this really beautiful opportunity to bring in the character and have them meet him and then lose him, and express the stakes of what it means to be forgotten in the Land of the Dead. He’s played by Edward James Olmos and, although he’s only in one scene, he leaves this lasting emotion over the whole film. That was a character that was a little later to the game.
ANDERSON: It’s so hard to pick a character because we love them all so much. Miguel is so amazing and we’re all so in love with our main character, but if I had to pick a character that I strongly identify with, I really love Mamá Imelda. She’s such a complex, strong woman, and she’s the one who really became the cornerstone of the family and made that family successful despite some odd rules.
UNKRICH: I would say the same with Mamá Imelda, knowing her journey. She started off as this very cookie cutter character that lacked any depth, mostly because we were focusing on figuring out who Miguel was and who Héctor was, early on. But she really went through the biggest transformation, over the course of developing the story, into becoming the really flushed out character that she is in the finished film.
Each of these animated movies seems to have some big technical challenge that you have to overcome. What was the big challenge on this film?