“Coco,” the latest animated film from Pixar, is only a few months away from its official release. The Dia de los Muertos-themed movie features an all-Latino voice cast, including Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ulbach, Edward James Olmos, Gabriel Iglesias, and Jaime Camil. We had a chance to watch the first 30 minutes of the film, and it’s clear Disney/Pixar worked hard to create a film that authentically captures the feel of Dia de los Muertos.
Here are some things to keep an eye out for if you watch the film.
“Coco” uses Dia de los Muertos as a backdrop to tell a story about family.
The film centers around Miguel Rivera, a boy who comes from a long line of shoemakers with an unusual aversion to music. Miguel, who is obsessed with the tunes of legendary singer Ernesto de la Cruz, hides his love for music because he doesn’t want to get a regañada from his parents or abuelita. But the call to become a musician is just too strong. So, Miguel makes a choice that feels right to him, but upsets his family.
Co-writer Adrian Molina says the film centers on family and all the dysfunction that comes along with it, which he had first-hand experience with growing up in a Mexican-American community. He explains it was his goal to be “truthful to the fact that families aren’t always completely functional” since that’s a “very universal thing.”
“Coco” is short for Socorro.
Socorro, better known as Mama Coco, is Miguel’s bisabuela, or great grandmother.
The Rivera family’s hometown of Santa Cecilia is inspired by Oaxaca…
… and its breathtaking Dia de los Muertos celebrations.
The Land of the Dead, however, is inspired by the city of Guanajuato.
Sets supervisor Chris Bernardi says their research in Guanajuato turned up photos that had “an incredible sense of buildings being jammed in together to form new shapes and new neighborhoods and winding walkways.” Bernardi and his team worked to capture that same feeling with their imagining of the Land of the Dead.
For the Land of the Dead, production designer Harley Jessup said they were going for a “fantastical verticality” that would be a stark contrast from the flatness of the town of Santa Cecilia.
This early concept art that was created for the film became the inspiration for the Land of the Dead you see in the film. If you look closely, you’ll see that the base of this city features pre-Columbian architecture. As you go higher and higher, it goes from colonial architecture to more modern architecture. The design team did this to reflect the era in which spirits have entered the Land of the Dead, from past to present.
If you get emotional during movies, take extra Kleenex.
Early on, the film establishes that Dia de los Muertos is the one day out of the year when the dead are allowed to return to the land of the living and visit their relatives. The scenes in which living families reunite with loved ones who have died will conjure bittersweet memories for viewers. It does a great job in honoring the spirit of Dia de los Muertos.
Somehow, they managed to give skeletons personality.
How do you make skeletons express emotion? If you’re an animator for Pixar, that’s a question that leads to more questions: should a skull have lips? Should it have teeth? Should it have facial hair?
According to character art director Daniel Arriaga, the Pixar team went through concept after concept until they struck the right balance of eyes, lips, bone structure and face paint to give each character a unique look and personality.
The look of the skeletons was also inspired by the engravings of Jose Guadalupe Posada.
“The Posada engravings, especially the Catrina, is really iconic for the holiday. We really embraced the Victorian costumes and architecture and wanted that to be a part of the world of the dead,” says Jessup.
Ernesto de la Cruz, the legendary singer who Miguel idolizes, is inspired by Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete.
Voiced by Benjamin Bratt, Ernesto de la Cruz is the most famous Mexican singer and actor of all time. Miguel feels a special connection with de la Cruz, whose music and movies inspire him to become a musician, despite his family’s wishes.
Gael Garcia Bernal, who voices a mischevious character named Hector, is one of the clear standouts of the film.
The moment Hector appears on the screen, you know you’re in for lots of laughs. Garcia has great chemistry with Anthony Gonzalez, who plays Miguel, and it’s clear he’s having fun with it.
“Gael really went for it,” says Molina. “He started keying onto things like, ‘I want to call [Miguel] ‘chamaco,’ because that feels like an old-timey kind of way that this guy might relate to this kid.’ And we’re like, ‘OK, do it. Go for it.'”
The character of Pepita is inspired by alebrijes, Mexican folk art sculptures that aren’t normally associated with Dia de los Muertos.
Alebrijes were invented in the 1930s by an artist named Pedro Linares, who had a fever dream about animals and insects with different body parts. Imagine a tiger with the head of an eagle, the wings of mosquito and the legs of a giraffe. He was inspired to create sculptures of these creatures, using papier-mâché to create the colorful animals, which gained popularity with artists such as Frida Kahlo.
Pepita, a chimera-like animal who is a spiritual guide in the Land of the Dead, was not originally designed as an alebrije. Animator Alonso Martinez, who grew up collecting alebrijes as a kid, said his colorful collection helped influence the eventual look of Pepita. And since alebrijes are a relatively new art form, they aren’t attached to any celebration or religious event.
“There’s no specific mythology or religious background that this comes from,” says Martinez. “So each person can bring their own meaning and symbology to it.”
Dante, the adorable street dog who becomes Miguel’s sidekick, was one of the toughest characters to animate.
Dante is a xoloscuinctle, an ancient breed of dog that the Aztecs believed would guide the dead toward Mictlán, the land of the dead.
Dante was difficult to animate because he’s essentially hairless, save for those wayward strands of hair on his head and tail. That means Pixar had to carefully animate the dog’s body movement because there’s no hair to hide behind. Look at those wrinkles on Dante’s back in the screenshot above. Now imagine having to animate those intricate details for every movement Dante made in the film. 😮
Pixar’s cultural advisers played a significant role in the film.
According to co-director Lee Unkrich, some of the notes they received ended up making “Coco” more entertaining. In one of the early versions of the film, Miguel’s abuelita carried a wooden spoon and smacked people with it. “It was one of our advisers who said, ‘No no no no, it has to be her chancla. She’s got to pull off her slipper and beat them with it.'”
Watch the latest trailer for “Coco”:
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