Pixar’s ‘Coco’ Takes Latin Music to a Magical Place

Pixar’s Coco is the next animated adventure out of the award-winning studio and the last original project they’ll put forward for the next few years.

November 20, 2017.’

Pixar’s newest animated movie, Coco, is meant to be a love letter to Mexico. The film has a Latino cast. It’s full of Mexican music, culture, and folklore — including some of the traditions around the Day of the Dead. And it premiered in Mexico, where it’s gone on to become the No. 1 film of all time. Now, audiences in the U.S. can see it.

The story follows 12-year-old Miguel Rivera, who yearns to be a great musician. But he has to hide his ambition — and his guitar — from his family of shoemakers who doesn’t approve. “No music,” he’s continually reminded by relatives who believe music cursed the family. His abuelita even raises her chancla, her sandal, at him when he dares to dream. “But my great-grandma Coco’s father was the greatest musician of all time,” Miguel declares.

Miguel idolizes Ernesto De La Cruz, a famous singer, and actor from Mexico’s golden age of cinema. The suave, fictional matinee idol was created as an homage to crooner Pedro Infante. “Remember me, though I have to say goodbye,” he sings. “Remember me, don’t let it make you cry.” (This catchy anthem was written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the duo that penned Oscar-winning songs from the movie frozen.)

And remembering family is a recurring theme of Coco— in fact, it’s the reason Miguel goes on his big adventure. On Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, he visits de la Cruz’s altar at the town cemetery, and soon after finds himself in the colorful afterlife. There, he’s greeted by a group of skeletons decked out in fancy clothes and hats, looking like characters from folk artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, whose calaveras — skeletons — are commemorated on that day. “Welcome to the land of your ancestors,” they say to Miguel. “We’re your family.”

Miguel teams up with one mischievous skeleton named Hector, who lets him in on the most important rule of the land of the dead: When there’s no one left living who remembers you, you disappear from this world. So Miguel, along with his hairless dog Dante, must race through the land of the dead to get back to his family’s altar.

This is not the first animated musical Day of the Dead movie; Jorge Gutierrez’s The Book of Life came out in 2014. As in that film, Coco is filled with Mexican cultural references and folklore, from its opening titles crafted as papel picado, to cartoon caricatures of artist Frida Kahlo and Mexican wrestler Santo. A bridge of marigold petals leads to the land of the dead, a floating metropolis layered atop ancient Mesoamerican pyramids, and colorful alebrijes — mythical spirit creatures — fly all around.

“We hope that our audience and those communities feel like we got it right,” says co-director Lee Unkrich. He says the filmmakers went to great lengths to make sure the depictions were culturally authentic and respectful. He and his crew of artists at Pixar spent six years traveling to Mexico for inspiration, going into people’s homes, visiting plazas and mercados, and attending Day of the Dead festivities. But as they were kicking around ideas for a title, parent company Disney got in a lot of heat for filing to trademark the phrase “Dia de Los Muertos.”

“There was a mistake in registering that title,” says Unkrich. “It was something that happened that we regret deeply because it was completely antithetical to what we were trying to do. We were trying to do everything right, and reach out to the community. But it also ended up being a bit of a wake-up call for us to step up our efforts even more.”