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.”
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,” which opens Wednesday, 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.
But it also 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.
“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,” said Unkrich. “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.”
Pixar also looked within its own 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.
Mexican music, too, plays a central role in the film. For that, composer Michael Giacchino (“Up,” ″Ratatouille”) collaborated with Mexican-American composer Germaine Franco. A research team was dispatched to Mexico City to bring back musical styles from throughout the country. And DJ and producer Camilo Lara served as musical consultant.
“It was important for me to know as much as I could about every style, every location in Mexico — how the music differs from place to place,” said Giacchino. “I really wanted the music to feel authentic real. So homework was a huge part of the job. Normally, music is the job. This had the extra layer of homework.”
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.”
Those six years included changes outside the filmmaker’s control. Donald Trump’s presidency has put strains on U.S.-Mexican relations, as has his ambitions to build a border wall. Though the film derived simply from Unkrich’s fascination with the Dia de Muertos, Giacchino says that “now it feels more important than ever to make a movie like this.”
“We think that we’ve built a bridge with this movie,” says Unkrich. “It’s a confusing world we live in right now and there’s a lot of negativity but I think we all feel honored and grateful that we’re able to put something positive into the world that’s hopeful and will hopefully do its own part to erode the artificial barriers we put between us.”