In ‘Coco,’ Pixar travels to Mexico and beyond the grave

Jake Coyle
AP Film Writer

New York -- Pixar films have never been shy about death. The “Toy Story” films are, in part, about mortality. The poetic highlight of “Up” is a wordless sequence of a spouse’s passing. The Earth, itself, was left for dead in “Wall-E.”

Students take pictures under a Day of the Dead altar hanging from the ceiling as they visit an exhibition featuring art from the Disney-Pixar animated film "Coco," at the Cineteca Nacional, Mexico's film archive, in Mexico City, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. The Day of the Dead themed movie has won over the Mexican public and critics, who praised its mix of tradition, a family-friendly story, and a moving message. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

But Pixar plunges fully into the afterlife in “Coco,” a brightly colored fable surrounding the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

The imagery of skeletons and graves in a kids’ movie might have put off other animation studios. But director Lee Unkrich (”Toy Story 3,” “Monsters, Inc.”) envisioned a film about family heritage and keeping alive the memories of deceased loved ones so they aren’t, as he says, “just fading photos in an album.”

It’s also a celebration of Mexico, as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy who dreams of becoming a musician. But after a feud with his family, he slips into a wondrous netherworld where he depends on his long-dead ancestors to restore him to the land of the living.

“Coco” is Pixar’s first feature film with a minority lead character, and one of the largest American productions ever to feature an almost entirely Latino cast (among them Benjamin Bratt and Gael Garcia Bernal). That makes it something of a landmark event, one that has already set box-office records in Mexico where it opened several weeks early.

The film opened Wednesday and was No. 1 after the Thanksgiving weekend box office, earning $71.2 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

It took a lot of homework and a lot of outreach for Pixar to convince Latinos that the production wasn’t just big-budget cultural appropriation. Such fears spiked when Disney tried to trademark “Dia de los Muertos” in 2013. After a backlash, the studio abandoned the effort.

Charting a different path, Pixar brought in cultural consultants, including playwright Octavio Solis and cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, who had been critical of the trademark bid. Unkrich retailored the film’s approach, doubling down on efforts to create an authentic celebration of Mexican folklore, traditions and music.

Security agents and visitors walk inside an exhibition featuring art from the Disney-Pixar animated film “Coco” at the Cineteca Nacional, Mexico’s film archive, in Mexico City this month.

“We took every pain that we could along the way to surround ourselves with cultural consultants, to spend a lot of time in Mexico, specifically embedding ourselves with Mexican families down there,” Unkrich said. “I knew that there would be a fear that we were going to lapse into cliche and stereotype, and so we did everything we could to not let that happen.”

It also meant pivoting from Unkrich’s initial idea, which centered on a Mexican-American boy who travels to his family in Mexico for the first time. In that treatment, the young protagonist is trying to get over the grief of a loss.

“It was born out of the fact that I’m not Latino myself. I’m American and that was at the time my natural entrance into a story,” said Unkrich. “We realized that that thematically was antithetical to what Dia de los Muertos is also about, which is this obligation to never forget, to never let go. We at that point had an epiphany that we were making the film as outsiders.”

“It didn’t really embrace the DNA of the holiday, which is not letting go of but staying connected to,” says Darla K. Anderson, a veteran Pixar producer. “When we realized that, we definitely pivoted to embrace more of the connected nature of Dia de los Muertos.”

A visitor walks past a display of Disney characters Thursday inside an exhibition titled “Mexico and Walt Disney: A Magical Encounter” at the Cineteca Nacional, Mexico’s film archive, in Mexico City. The Disney and Mexico show is appearing along with an exhibition of art from the Day of the Dead themed Disney-Pixar animated film “Coco,” which won over the Mexican public and critics who praised its mix of tradition, a family-friendly story, and a moving message.

Pixar looked within its ranks to help Unkrich craft a culturally faithful tale. Adrian Molina, an animator on previous Pixar releases, serves as co-director and helped steer the script.

“Growing up Mexican-American, I know the transformative power that seeing yourself represented onscreen has,” says Molina. “My hope is for anyone who’s a small Latino or Latina kid and sees this film that that has an impact on how they see themselves. And if you’re coming from a different experience, recognizing the fact that there’s Latino and Latina heroes and the beauty of a Mexican family.”

Hispanics are one of the largest demographics of regular moviegoers, yet they are seldom catered to. They last year accounted for 23 percent of frequent moviegoers in the U.S. and Canada, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

The whole production, from Unkrich’s initial pitch to completion, took six years. Pixar, where animators often toil in secrecy, found itself “inviting people in,” says Molina.

“And that meant really asking the question at every stage of the process: Is this reflective of these families? Is this reflective of the traditions?” says Molina. “Wherever it fell short, we wanted to open the door, ask the question and make it better.”