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Pixar’s Coco is Alive and Well in the Land of the Dead

Coco Miguel Dante

Emeryville, Calif. — The screening of Pixar’s next film, Coco, or to be precise, a viewing of roughly a third of the movie, had just ended, the lights rising in the studio’s theater against a ceiling of faux starlight with all the subtlety of the midday sun. There was no question, we were back in the land of the living, and for a brief moment we regretted it.

What we had seen was simply stunning – the tale of young Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) as the pursuit of his passion found him running from the perceived constraints of his family’s history, then, unexpectedly, deeper into it. In the process we were introduced to Pixar’s colorful interpretation of Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead, a holiday celebrated primarily in Mexico to honor and welcome home spirits of family members who have passed. The holiday is full of offerings to the dead, presented via ofrendas, altars filled with foods and gifts, as well as graveside visits with the same, to assist said ancestors upon their spiritual journey.

In showcasing such a rich cultural event, Pixar, as too many other movie studios have done, ran the risk of misrepresentation and appropriation, the negative effects of which cut far deeper than poor showings on Rotten Tomatoes and slugging sales at the box office. However, as co-director and writer Adrian Molina explained, “Here at Pixar, story is always the most difficult and the most important part… when it came to research for Coco that meant traveling to Mexico and experiencing the Day of the Dead firsthand.” Which they did, and it shows. In addition, Pixar created a cultural consultant group, including early vocal critics of the film, to advise the team on histories, accuracies and traditions, ensuring each were presented accordingly.

Adrian Molina Coco

Said Molina, “We didn’t just want Coco to be a film that takes place on the Day of the Dead, but we wanted it to be a film that could only take place on the Day of the Dead, that the traditions were built into the story on a fundamental level.”

“The story of Coco is inspired by Mexico’s people, cultures and traditions,” said Director Lee Unkrich. “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 in Mexico City, Oaxaca and Guanajuato. We saw a play in Xochimilco. We spent time with many lovely families in Tlacolula, Tialixtac, El Tule, San Marcos Tlapazola and Abasolo. They 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.

“We really wanted to explore the family bonds that tie us to the generations that came before us… this story is about celebrating our past—even as we look to the future.”

As for the actual making of Coco, one of the biggest challenges for the creative team was figuring out how to create both the Land of the Dead and the skeleton residents of it, the juxtaposition with all things living.

Mama Imelda Coco

Danielle Feinberg Coco

For example, to better understand and contrast the lands of the living and the dead, respectively, Production Designer Harley Jessup explained, “Our multiple research trips to Mexico were inspiring to us, to the enormous responsibility, to be as authentic as possible while joyously celebrating the culture of Mexico and family. Mexico is a designer’s dream, the rich colors and textures we saw everywhere.”

Added Director of Photography Danielle Feinberg, “We had 7 million lights. We’ve never had 7 million lights.”

The results speak for themselves.

Miguel Coco

Coco lights

The Pixar team has created two wonderful worlds in Coco, bringing them together with such graceful, seamless joy, that it is easy to feel they have coexisted forever, and if we learned anything from the film, it’s because they have.

Disney•Pixar’s Coco opens in U.S. theaters on Nov. 22, 2017.

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