Essays · Movies

There’s Something Wild at The Heart of Pixar’s ‘Coco’

Meet the adorable spirit animal at the heart of Pixar’s upcoming journey into The Land of the Dead.
By  · Published on August 28th, 2017

A few weeks ago, Film School Rejects had the opportunity to make the trek to the Bay Area and visit the folks at Pixar Animation Studios, a trip we’re always eager to take. Because no matter what it is they’re working on, Pixar is always doing something interesting. What made this trip even more interesting was the project we’d be previewing — the Dia de los Muertos themed musical odyssey, Coco.

Much has been made already in the press about Pixar’s interest in the Mexican holiday, an interest that stems directly from the passion of Pixar veteran and Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich. There’s plenty of room for this to go wrong. But for Pixar, the magic is always in the research. That’s the impression you get when you speak with the likes of Unkrich, producer Darla K. Anderson, and ascendant writer/co-director Adrian Molina. There’s a great deal of cultural fabric in Coco woven with the help of cultural consultants, Pixar team members celebrating their own heritage, and research excursions to Mexico. And as they explained to us during the press day, it’s also Pixar’s first all Latino cast, “plus John Ratzenberger,” of course.

That’s all a discussion for further down the road, as Coco isn’t due in theaters until November 22. For now, let’s get acquainted with the film’s core story and some of its more mystical elements. As we found out during our visit, this celebration of Dia de los Muertos isn’t just a culturally significant piece of art from Pixar, it’s also a vibrant, colorful adventure.

The story revolves around Miguel (voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy born into a family of shoe makers. Except, he doesn’t want to make shoes. He wants to play music like Ernesto de la Cruz, the most famous man to ever come out of his small town. The problem: thanks to some family history, Miguel’s grandmother forbids music in their household. And in his quest to find his place, Miguel gets himself lost in the Land of the Dead.

That’s where the really vibrant part of the adventure begins. In a footage preview for the press, Pixar showed off Miguel’s journey across a bright marigold flower bridge, accompanied by the ghosts of his relatives, in search of a way back to the land of the living.

Family Reunion. Courtesy of Disney•Pixar. The Land of the Dead. Courtesy of Disney•Pixar.

It’s a gorgeous excursion, one that forced Pixar’s lighting team, led by director of photography Danielle Feinberg to reimagine how they place lighting in the 3D space of their films. As you can see in the accompanying art, the Land of the Dead is a uniquely complex landscape, built from the ground-up to show off the many cultural and architectural eras of Mexico.

Within the Land of the Dead, we meet all kinds of creatures. Roguishly handsome skeletons voiced by Gael García Bernal — who despite being animated in this film, finds a way to keep his jacket game strong — and plenty of Miguel’s family to give him a hard time about his love for music.


Pepita concept art by Daniel Arriaga. Courtesy of Disney•Pixar.

Perhaps the most striking and interesting characters we meet within the Land of the Dead are alebrijes, or spirit animals based on Mexican artisan folklore, mainly from the Oaxaca region. Alebrijes are small figurines made out of paper maché or wood that represent mythically mashed up animals.

During our visit, character artist Alonso Martinez showed off the design of Pepita, the spirit animal who is pursuing Miguel through the Land of the Dead. Pepita is part big cat (ie. jaguar), part eagle (wings and rear talons), with features from other animals, including ram’s horns and a lizard-like tail.

For Martinez, a longtime collector of alebrijes, the decision to include the mythical creatures in the world of Coco was very meaningful on a personal level. It’s also about creating something on screen that audiences have never seen before. “What I love about alebrijes,” he explained. “Is how each one of them feels unique. What these artisans are doing is they’re working with the shape of the wood. They look at it and ask, what kind of animal is this? Inherently every single alebrije is different – I always had that feeling like I was capturing a Pokémon. Like, I found a rare one!”

For co-director Adrian Molina, it’s about building a cultural bridge. “For anyone who’s familiar with it,” Molina explained, “I hope they see a lot of detail they recognize. And for people who this may be on their radar but don’t have a really deep understanding of it, I hope it helps gives them that much deeper a connection to the celebration.”

Stay tuned as we roll our more coverage of our visit to Pixar and our introduction to Coco.

Coco opens in U.S. theaters on Nov. 22, 2017.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)