The latest film from Pixar Animation Studios is described by director Lee Unkrich as “a love letter to Mexico.”
Called Coco, the film is about Mexican traditions and is set in the November festivities of Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, and 12-year-old Miguel and his journey to the Land of the Dead in search of his own heritage and history.
“We love Mexico and Mexicans, and . . . I think this is a great opportunity to do something good, to send a good message out to the world about Mexico,” said Unkrich, who directed Toy Story 3, Pixar’s most successful film yet.
But he noted that his movie, scheduled for release in November next year, should not be considered a political product.
Rather, the filmmaker’s intention was to “celebrate the diversity of Mexican culture with a positive sheen.”
Unkrich and his team drew inspiration for the two main parallel settings of their story from real-life locations in Mexico: the city of Oaxaca became Santa Cecilia, the land of the living, while Guanajuato became an imaginary Land of the Dead, “a dazzlingly vibrant, stacked metropolis.”
“Visiting Oaxaca and Guanajuato was not enough for me. I wanted to see their surroundings, smell their scents and taste their food. I wanted to be with the people and not only as a tourist,” said the director.
Unkrich’s Mexican experience turned immersive: “During our trips we stayed with families, learning about how their ofrendas [offerings for the dead] are set, visiting the cemeteries with them, seeing how they clean their relatives’ crypts, and learning their stories.”
The result highlights highly specific aspects of Mexican culture: the movie’s score draws heavily from musical influences like banda, marimba and son Jarocho music. Miguel’s pet is a Xoloitzcuintle (a hairless Mexican dog breed), while alebrijes — whimsical Mexican folk art figurines — become the brightly colored, oversized guardians in the Land of the Dead.
“I’ll be the first to say that going on a few research trips doesn’t make us experts in anything,” Unkrich told the magazine Vanity Fair, “but it would have been wrong for us not to go down. I knew from day one . . . that we had an enormous responsibility to tell this story right and to not lapse into cliche or stereotype.”
As an American product the film’s cast includes known Hollywood voices like those of Renée Victor as Mama Coco, Miguel’s grandmother, and Benjamin Bratt as “deceased film star and music supernova Ernesto de la Cruz.” Young newcomer Anthony González voices Miguel.
Representing Mexico, Gael García Bernal (most recently of Mozart in the Jungle fame) will voice Miguel’s trickster skeletal companion Héctor.
Unkrich and writer and co-director Adrián Molina are aware that Coco will premiere in a world that is not necessarily the one they envisioned when kicking off the project in 2010.
“The best way to bring people in and have them empathize with others is through storytelling. If we can tell a good story with characters audiences can care about, I’d like to think that prejudices can fall aside and people can just experience the story and these characters for the human beings that they are,” Unkrich said.
“I think that nothing bad can come from opening your heart to a story. I think only good can come from putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” added Molina.