"Coco" director Lee Unkrich had a bumpy ride trying to make one of Pixar's most unique movies ever.
- "Coco" is the latest Pixar movie and is directed by Lee Unkrich ("Toy Story 3").
- The movie focuses on the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos ("Day of the Dead"), and marks the first time Pixar has told a story around a cultural celebration.
- Unkrich brought on cultural consultants to make sure the story was representing Mexican culture correctly. This is the first time a Pixar movie has welcomed in outsiders to a project still in production.
- This came after the Latino community protested Disney for attempting to patent the phrase "Dia del los Muertos" for the movie.
Director Lee Unkrich was hot off the box office success and Oscar win for 2010’s “Toy Story 3” when he delved into making a movie that focused on the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos. Seven years later, the project now known as “Coco” is finally ready for release (in theaters November 22), but the experience of making it was unlike any other Pixar movie before.
Under the watchful eye of Pixar/Walt Disney Animation head John Lasseter, Disney animation has been a powerhouse for over two decades. A big reason for that is the visionaries behind the scenes who are always looking for a challenge. For Unkrich, it was the Day of the Dead holiday that really fascinated him as an entry into telling a story.
“It wasn't until I started to learn about the tradition, and what it was truly all about, and its history, that I started to really see the potential of telling a story that could be very adventurous and visually dazzling, full of music and color, but could also have a real emotional resonance,” Unkrich told Business Insider. “And that's what we're all really looking for ultimately in the stories that we tell. We don't want to just tell a story that's gimmicky and clever.”
It would be new terrain for Pixar: the first time it would tell a story around a cultural celebration. But Lasseter was game. He gave Unkrich the okay and the filmmaker got started in September of 2011.
The story follows a young boy named Miguel who secretly wants to be a famous musician, though his family has forbidden music after his great-great-grandfather left the family to seek out fame as a musician. While celebrating Day of the Dead, Miguel magically ends up in the Land of the Dead, and must go on a journey to find his way back to the living while also searching for his great-great-grandfather.
“Many of us have lost loved ones and have spend time thinking about them and wanting to keep their memories alive, so we felt even though this was a culturally specific setting for our story that it was going to be full of ideas that people all over the world could relate to,” Unkrich said.
But finding the right tone for the culture it was spotlighting turned out to be the project’s biggest challenge. At first, to stay clear of stereotypes and making sure to be culturally respectful, Unkrich said he used many Pixar artists and employees who are Mexican or Mexican-American as a sounding board. However, a major roadblock hit the production in 2013 when Disney filed an application to patent Dia de los Muertos for the release of the movie. The Latino community went into an uproar on social media and a petition to stop Disney went up on Change.org and received over 21,000 signatures. The company quickly withdrew the application.
Unkrich admits making “Coco” has been a learning process from the start, but he said they really hit their stride when they put together a group of cultural consultants. Made up of people like Lalo Alcaraz — author of the nationally syndicated comic “La Cucaracha,” who was one of the most vocal opponents of the patent — and Latino playwright Octavio Solis, the group would meet with Unkrich, codirector Adrian Molina, and their team every few months and look at the development of the project. It was the first time on any Pixar movie that outsiders were allowed into the studio’s creative process. And getting the feedback of outsiders didn’t stop there.
“We ended up bringing in periodically big groups of all sorts of folks from the Latino community, from artists to writers to political figures to media executives, because we wanted to get a lot of different perspectives,” Unkrich said. “What we quickly learned is there is no one right way to tell a story set in the Latino community, there are a lot of different opinions. Part of our challenge was trying to navigate all those different opinions to figure out our path forward.”
These meetings with the consultants and Latino community didn’t lead to any major changes to the story, Unkrich said, however they were responsible for many small tweaks that increased the movie’s connection to Mexican culture.
One example is a change in how the character of Miguel’s grandmother, Abuelita, disciplines people.
“In her earlier conception we gave her a wooden spoon that was tucked into her apron string and she would whip that out and kind of hit you to express displeasure,” Unkrich said. “It was at one of our earlier screenings that a couple of our cultural consultants said, ‘A spoon has nothing to do with Latino culture, she should really pull off her chancla, her slipper, and hit them with it.’ And that was the first time we learned about la chancla, and we embraced the idea fully. That one adjustment has proven to win us a lot of points in the Latino community because it's something a lot of people grew up fearing.”
Then there were the factors surrounding the movie that were beyond Unkrich and Pixar’s control, like how immigration suddenly became a hot-button topic after the election of Donald Trump as president. Unkrich said he and his crew were in Mexico on election night, recording music by local musicians for the movie. He said the news of the Trump win didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits, but he does recognize the current climate about immigration and race, and how it’s changed substantially since back when they began working on “Coco.”
“I feel like this has been a confusing time for many people, and there's lots of negativity in the air, and we just hope that with this film we are bringing some needed positivity,” he said.
Unkrich doesn’t know if “Coco” can be a unifier, but he does believe that telling stories like this is important.
“I think a lot of great change in history has come from stories and storytelling, there's a power to it,” he said. “The one thing that everyone knows for sure these days is that we're living in super unpredictable times. All I can really say is that I firmly believe that by bringing this movie out we're trying to be part of the solution rather than trying to be part of the problem.”