Imagine three weeks ago. To say it was a different time is something of an understatement. Walt Disney Studios was basking the glow of not only a gigantic haul and critical acclaim for Marvel Studios’ “Thor: Ragnarok, but a soon to be record box office tally for Pixar’s “Coco” in Mexico.
The Mexican set tale centers on Miguel (voiced by youngster Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year old boy who has been forced to keep his guitar playing and singing skills a secret from his family. His grandmother (Renée Victor) insists on now music in the family’s life after a dramatic incident happened to his great, great, great grandmother so many years ago. On Día de Muertos he steals a guitar that is connect to his relatives and finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead where his relatives try to convince him to stop his musical ambitions and family secrets are finally revealed.
Directed by Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3,” “Finding Nemo”) and co-directed by newcomer Adrian Molina, the film has already been embraced in Mexico with a stunning $43 million to date making it the highest grossing film in that nation’s history. For Unkirch, Molina and producer Darla K. Anderson it’s a warmer response than they could have dreamed of.
“It’s enormously gratifying to us that people have been responding as well as they have,” Unkrich says.
Molina adds, “Yeah, you know so much of this story is inspired by Mexico, by the people we met and to see that it is received with the exact same intention that we tried to create it? It feels like all of that work, all of those meeting [mattered].”
“There’s no way to guarantee it,” Unkrich says. “As hard as we worked on it, it could have just easily been dismissed as a film made by outsiders about their culture and they may not have accepted it, but exact opposite has happened. It’s just been thoroughly embraced.”
“Yeah, and its so emotionally gratifying, and I think overwhelming, honestly, to feel how strongly [Mexican audiences love it],” Anderson says.
Of course, that might not have always been the case. In 2014 Jorge R. Gutiérrez‘s critically underrated “Book of Life” arrived in theaters with an all-star vocal cast including Zoe Saldana and Channing Tatum. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, it also featured a story that centered on a young boy traveling to the Land of the Dead on Día de Muertos. Did its arrival ever give the “Coco” filmmakers pause?
“Well, first of all, we were already several years into it,” Anderson starts.
“Yeah, we had been working on our story for a while when we found out that that was being made. Honestly, it was a little disheartening, initially, just because I felt like we were doing something really unique, and I knew that with them coming out there would be inevitable comparisons, and that’s happened,” Unkrich says. “At the end of the day, we loved the story that we were telling and when ‘Book of Life’ came out we all went to see it and we were very relieved to find that Jorge was telling a very different story than we were still set against the same culture. So, I’m glad we forged ahead because we’re all really proud of ‘Coco’ and I’m glad it’s in the world and I would hate to have it not in the world just because another movie came out.”
“Coco,” in fact, has been in the works since at least 2010 when Unkirch pitched it after the success of “Toy Story 3.” He notes it was “a whole different story” back then.
“We worked on that for almost a year, I think,” Unkrich says. “Then after about a year we changed directions and came up with just the initial building blocks of what became ‘Coco, but that still was a multi-year journey.”
“That version, the first screening that we had and showed to the studio, it had a lot of [the elements in the movie now],” Molina says. “It had the kid who wanted to play music, the family who disapproved and this journey into The Land of the Dead to meet this person who could help him find his way.”
Molina, who previously worked as a storyboard artist on both “Toy Story 3” and “Monster’s University” started working on “Coco’s” screenplay a year and a half after Unkrich had dived into the project.
“Knowing what the themes and the subject matter of the film were I was very excited and I asked if I could be part of it,” Molina says. “So, I started as a story artist and just fell so in love with the representation of the culture, with the family, these themes of an artist and the struggles against tradition that I would take these story problems home. We had a lot of problems that we were beating our heads against the wall trying to figure out and sometimes that meant story boarding a sequence, sometimes that meant writing pages and pitching ideas for how to solve stuff like ‘How does Miguel get back home?’ I presented those ideas to Lee and Darla and they really responded to the enthusiasm and that developed into actually writing a whole draft of the film and then developing that further.”
The Land of the Dead is one of the most beautifully designed and lit worlds in any Pixar movie (and, yes, that’s a high compliment). Unkrich says their initial inspiration was the city of Guanajuato.
“It’s this city that’s kind of built into a bowl-shaped valley and all of the buildings in the town are painted from this set color palette,” Unkrich says. “So, they’re very colorful and they’re all kind of encrusted into the hillside. I always imagined a Land of the Dead that was always under construction and always being added onto willy-nilly and so Guanajuato inspired a lot of the look. Philosophically, one of the artists whose work has best come to exemplify Dia de los Muertos, is this artist named José Guadalupe Posada who did a lot of wood cut engravings at the turn of the century. So, the famous Katrina and a lot of the skeletal imagery that we associate with Dia de los Muertos now came from him.”
The design of the Land of the Dead was also heavily influenced by the architecture of Posada’s era and the fact so much of Dia de los Muertos art in general is inspired by that Victorian world.
“A lot of that came from other places that we visited in Mexico, as well,” Unkrich says. “There’s a lot of architecture in Mexico City of that era that’s really ornate and beautiful. So, we knew we had to create and imagine this whole imaginary place, but I wanted it to still, ultimately, feel very rooted in its own Mexican-ness.”
“Coco” is now in theaters nationwide.