Coco Preview: What we learned about Disney•Pixar’s November release
In Disney•Pixar’s Coco, young Miguel is on a search for a way to prove to his family how important music is in his life. We recently got a chance to check out the beginning of the film and learn all about the world of Coco at Disney•Pixar in Northern California. We’ll give you a look at what we learned, including a deeper look at the story, the characters and the land of the dead. You can also check out some brand-new film stills, behind-the-scenes shots and concept art in the gallery below.
Meet the Characters
Miguel: You may already know that Coco centers around Miguel (Anthony Gonzolez), a young boy in a small Mexican village. We learned a little bit more about the newest lead character in the film. Miguel loves his family very much, but they just don’t get him. Far back in his history, Miguel’s great-great grandmother had a little girl named Coco, but her husband left the family to go play music, and this enterprising woman found a way to support her daughter by learning to make shoes. Now that is the family business and Miguel is expected to join. In fact, no one assumes he’d want anything else. However, all he wants to do is make music. Music, however, is banned in this family. It’s tradition and no one can change that.
Dante: Miguel has a buddy; a street dog named Dante who follows him around and helps him through his journey. Dante is a little goofy, but he’s loyal to Miguel and even follows him into the land of the dead to help Miguel find his great-great grandfather. Dante is a Xoloitzcuintil dog, or Xolo for short. Named for the Aztec god Xolotl, they are traditionally known as healers and they can accompany you to the afterlife. Director Lee Unkrich told us, “Dante was kind of in and out of the story at the time. Dante had to earn his way in. We didn’t want him to be just a token, cute dog along for the ride. We thought it would be great to have not just a dog, but a very specific kind of dog. The Xolo dog is the national dog of Mexico. They’re unique. I’ve never seen a hairless dog in animation. It’s kind of cool for people to see different breeds out there that they’ve never been exposed to.” He added, “We also did a lot of research into Mesoamerican beliefs, like ancient Aztec ideas about what it meant to die and the journey that you could go, to Mictlan, which was their land of the dead and we read that, even back then, Xolo dogs were part of that journey.”
Peptia: Pepita is the spirit animal of Miguel’s great-great grandmother in the land of the dead. She is an alebrije, an amalgamation of a number of animals based on the Mexican folk art created by Pedro Linares. Pepita has eagle wings, a lion’s body, a lizard tail and the back feet of a chicken, as well as stunning fanciful colors. Everyone in the land of the dead has an alebrije, and unfortunately for Miguel, Pepita is going to help his family find him when he’s trying to do something they don’t approve of. Co-director Adrian Molina explained the decision to use folk art for a character. He said, “That was one of the trickier stories to incorporate into the film. Alibrejes are Mexican folk art that you’ll see going through Oaxaca, but they’re not necessarily linked to a celebration of the Day of the Dead, but when you see them, they’re so lively and they’re colorful and they’re characters. We knew to see them in movement would be so special in this film. They’re kind of like spirit guides, they’re kind of like pets and really, they’re there to help you on your journey in the land of the dead and as such, they really kind of give something special both visually and spiritually while families are trying to find each other. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone, even if they’re not good at their job to help you on their journey.” Unkrich added, “Especially if they’re a glowing mashup between a hedgehog and a bat!”
Hector: As Miguel journeys through the land of the dead to find his great-great grandfather, he has another companion. He meets up with Miguel, a skeleton who has mostly been forgotten by his living family. Hector, who is voiced by Gael García Bernal, is a little scrappy and mostly out for himself, though he has a good heart. He and Miguel have something to give each other and along with Dante, they’re determined to make their partnership work. Unkrich spoke about having half of the film full of skeleton characters. He said, “We had to think long and hard about how we were going to design them and what they were going to look like. We wanted them to be appealing. We never wanted to make a scary movie. That’s not what we were setting out to do. We made a lot of decisions early on and one of the earliest decisions was to give them eyes. Most skeletons you see don’t have eyes… in this film we wanted the skeletons to be characters. They were characters. They’re family. Once you get past the initial shock of them being skeletons, you can see them as characters. For me, that was vitally important. The window of the soul is through the eyes and I couldn’t see having a bunch of eyeless characters.”
As Coco opens, we learn all about Miguel’s great-great grandmother and how her determination helped save her family when her husband leaves her for his music. However, the family ban on making music is crushing young Miguel. He idolizes the late singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) and secretly watches videos of his performances. In fact, he has a whole shrine to him in a hidden attic. Miguel and Dante spend hours in there, playing the guitar that Miguel built himself and dreaming of being a musician.
Back at home, Miguel’s entire family is working in the family business, making shoes. When they find out what Miguel has been doing, they try to take it away from him. It’s almost Día de Muertos or the Day of the Dead, where the family who has passed over the generations are honored. There is a festival at their graves and every family has an alter called an ofrenda where pictures of the dead are placed with marigold petals to guide them back from the land of the dead. Their favorite foods are offered and stories are told about their lives. There is also a talent show in the town square, where Miguel is hoping to show his family and his village that his passion for music should also be his life. Unfortunately, his family finds a way to take his guitar away and Miguel has a plan to get one to play on. We won’t spoil it for you, but he travels to the land of the dead to find his idol and his family on that side of the marigold bridge doesn’t want him to be there.
Día de Muertos and the Land of the Dead
While we were at the press day, we learned all about the Land of the Dead. There are rules in this universe. Those who pass have alebrijes as spirit guides and usually stay with others in their family. They have to stay in the land of the dead until Día de Muertos, but they can only cross back over to see their families if those families honor them with a photo on the ofrenda. In fact, they have to go through what appears to be a TSA sort of situation to make sure there really is a photograph. Being remembered is important and someone like the famous musician Ernesto de la Cruz lives like a king in the land of the dead. Someone who’s family has forgotten him like Hector isn’t so lucky. Molina said, “A lot of offerings come with that [being remembered] and the remembrance holds him together. He’s very high status. Miguel’s family, they’re well-remembered by the people who love him. They might not be as sparkling as Ernesto de la Cruz, but there are some characters who may not be remembered and don’t hold together as well.” In the land of the dead, people continue to look and act like themselves, but they’re skeletons. As you can see from the shot of Miguel looking at the land, it’s lit with strings of colored lights and is still being built. You can see a bit in the shot that the bottom levels are built up with ancient dwellings and as it moves up, you can see the progression of buildings that reflect the time period of those who have passed.
The Importance of Family
Family is key in Coco, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Miguel is expected to be what the rest of the family wants him to be, which isn’t a musician. He feels the crush of family expectations and runs away to try to prove that his love of music is essential to his being. What he finds out is that, though that is true, his family is always there for him, on both sides of the marigold bridge. Alongside the family he makes for himself with Dante and Hector, he must learn the secret of what happened in his family’s past and use it to help shape his own destiny.
Directed by Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3), co-directed by Adrian Molina (story artist Monsters University) and produced by Darla K. Anderson (Toy Story 3), Disney•Pixar’s Coco will be released on November 22, 2017.
Coco features an original score from Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino (Up, Rogue One) and additional songs co-written by Germaine Franco (Dope, Shovel Buddies) and Molina. Also part of the team is musical consultant Camilo Lara of the music project Mexican Institute of Sound.