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How Coco’s Directors Celebrated the Film’s Mexican Heritage

Pixar’s latest roots a young boy’s quest in the ancient traditions of Día de los Muertos.
Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzelez), center, surrounded by characters from Pixar’s Coco.
Courtesy of Pixar

It’s one thing to find inspiration for a Día de los Muertos–themed film while walking through the Mexico Pavilion at Disney World’s Epcot, another to turn that spark into an authentic Pixar film for the masses. Lee Unkrich came up with the idea for Coco, the animation studio’s 19th feature film—out on Thanksgiving—after spotting a papier-mâché mariachi band comprised of skeleton musicians in a theme-park exhibit. “I’ve long been interested in Día de los Muertos,” said the Toy Story 3 director. “It is an odd juxtaposition of skeletal imagery with bright colors and festivities and joyfulness.”

But getting the green light gave Unkrich pause. “I immediately felt this weight on my shoulders of the responsibility to get this story right and to be culturally accurate and respectful,” he said. To start, Unkrich insisted on an entirely Latino cast—featuring Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, and newcomer Anthony Gonzalez, who has been playing mariachi music since he was four years old—and hired a team of cultural consultants, for whom Pixar screened versions of the film every few months. Unkrich and his creative team also took multiple trips to Mexico for research and inspiration—visiting with families on the early November holiday and touring museums, markets, plazas, workshops, churches, and cemeteries in Mexico City, Oaxaca, and Guanajuato.

“We absorbed details in every place that we visited, but the most valuable thing was the time we spent with Mexican families,” said Unkrich. “Every one of them was kind and open and excited to share their traditions with us. A lot of the details from those visits ended up being a part of Coco.

Screenwriter Adrian Molina felt a deep personal connection to the story, and his contributions were so significant that he earned a co-director credit midway through production. “I grew up in a multi-generational Mexican household,” said Molina, who also co-wrote some of Coco’s songs. “When I was in high school, my grandparents came from Mexico to live with us. Like the characters in the movie, my grandmother was wheelchair-bound, and both my grandparents spoke Spanish but not very much English. . . . I love music, and the opportunity to create these characters that I knew the world would fall in love with was very exciting.”

The film centers on Miguel (Gonzalez), a 12-year-old boy who wants to be a musician even though his shoemaker family forbids it. Attempting to take fate into his own hands, Miguel ventures into the Land of the Dead—a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors, whimsical towers (inspired by Mesoamerican Aztec pyramids), and thousands of meticulously costumed skeletons—in search of the ancestor responsible for turning his family against music. “We really wanted to explore the family bonds that tie us to the generations that came before us,” said Unkrich. “This story is about celebrating our past—even as we look to the future.” Molina adds, “It shows the beauty of this culture . . . the beauty of music and its ability to connect across generations and, we hope, across cultures.”

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