Coco is an animated film that was made in the U.S. about Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). I live in Texas where many people celebrate Día de Muertos, and I even had a very cute children’s book I read to my kids at Halloween every year. Even so, it has always seemed like a a strange celebration. Coco has made sense of it for me. It’s such a beautiful film! My daughter and I saw it when it was in theaters last November. We watched it again, with my husband, last week. (It’s currently streaming on Netflix.) It’s fantastic!!
The film premiered at the Morelia International Film Festival in Morelia, Mexico and then released theatrically in Mexico the weekend before Día de Muertos last year. It won two Academy Awards this year: Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song. It was also was chosen by the National Board of Review as the Best Animated Film of 2017 and won the Best Animated Film at the BAFTA Awards, Golden Globe Awards, Critic’s Choice Movie Awards, and Annie Awards. It is the 15th highest grossing animated film, ever!
It was based on an original idea by Lee Unkrich who is a long time creative team member of Pixar. (He also worked on Finding Nemo, Toy Story, Monsters, Inc…). He and Adrian Molina directed the film. The story was originally going to be about an American boy who is dealing with the death of his mother and learns about his Mexican heritage. Neither Molina or Unkrich is from Mexico and they later decided that a different story would better reflect the real culture with which they were using for the story.
Unkrich said his intent was not to bring diversity and representation through the film. It was simply about telling a story. The diversity and representation just kind of happened. His goal was to create a film that was free of clichés and stereotypes and he wanted it to be as culturally authentic as possible. He and Molina wanted to tell an honest story about a very real culture. He traveled throughout Mexico in October to discover how different areas and families celebrate Día de Muertes. He discovered that the more he learned about Día de Muertes, the more personally the depth of the celebration affected him.
One of the most important things for Unkrich was paying attention to how the families interacted with one another. (Many families in Mexico are like Coco’s family, with 3 or 4 generations all living in one home.) He chose the city of Guanajuato as the city to base Coco on because there is no place else like it anywhere in the world. Buildings and homes are built into the hillside and all are painted very bright colors. He said it was easy to envision the city having buildings on top of one towering up to the sky, which is how the Land of the Dead is portrayed in Coco. (It grows up out of the water.)
Unkrich didn’t want Coco to be a musical, but wanted music to be a big part of it. A model for the music in the film is the Cohen brothers O’ Brother Where Art Thou. Other inspirations for the film were Hayao Miyazaki’s anime films Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle.
Unkrich says the story line was very difficult to create because of the “universe rules”. They had difficulty finding a way to bring Miguel back from the dead in a way that felt authentic. In the end, every part of the completed version works. It’s a wonderful, wonderful film!