It is hard to imagine Disney and Pixar’s Coco coming out at a more appropriate time. As the country in which Pixar is based experiences a struggle in how it perceives Mexican culture and immigrants, Coco is an exuberant celebration of our multicultural world that shines a light on the unique beauty of Día de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday for the Day of the Dead.
In the film, a young boy named Miguel has the universal urge to follow his dream, which for him is to become a guitarist musician in the mariachi tradition. However, his family is less than keen on him getting out of their multigenerational business of shoemaking. Still, the film is told with warmth and light about the family traditions that make Día de los Muertos so special, as it is a time to honor the ancestors who came before you—which becomes quite literal in Coco as the boney spirits of relatives also become ensnared in Miguel’s journey.
Coco has been in development for six years at Pixar, so there is no way that directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina could have predicted the film’s timeliness of coming out in a climate where an embattled American president continues to standby his rhetoric regarding most undocumented Mexican immigrants—and is now targeting legal immigration rates too. Still when I sat down to speak with the filmmakers at Pixar Studios about Coco, they openly admit they hope their film inspires a better understanding of shared commonalities in our global climate.
“We don’t make message movies, but that being said, we are making a movie about a very particular culture,” Unkrich tells me. “We live in a global community, like it or not. There are a lot of different people, a lot of cultures, a lot of different colors in our world. And I think things aren’t going to get any better by everybody staying divided. We need to accept that we’re living with other people who have other cultures and different beliefs than we do, and I think putting a movie like this into the world, and humanizing the characters, and hopefully getting people wrapped up in the stories so that they are not thinking about the cultural aspects, but they’re just thinking of the people as people, these characters as people, might be a step towards more acceptance and of embracing our global community.”
And part of understanding that culture is how precisely different Coco’s depiction of Día de los Muertos is from so many other American films. Generally speaking, Día de los Muertos is depicted by Hollywood as being a dangerous and spooky time, much like how Halloween is often perceived in the United States. Whereas the Day of the Dead is more about a celebration of family and remembering those lost. It is a distinction that Unkrich and Molina were both keen on distinguishing.
“Yeah, I’m glad you brought up the whole conflation with Halloween, because that’s something that a lot of people, just because they don’t know better and because the two celebrations are so close together, and there are skeletons involved, it would make sense why people would conflate the two,” Unkrich says. “I’m really happy that we’re putting something out in the world that, on a global level, is going to be educating people on what this celebration is really about, and that it really has nothing to do with Halloween.”
And for Molina, who leapt at the opportunity to make Coco his first directorial credit, it was about exploring his own heritage.
“So my family’s Mexican, my mom is from Jalisco,” Molina says. “But in the town where she grew up, they didn’t have the practice of Día de los Muertos the way you see it in the film. But one of the things that I could really relate to, in terms of the way that death was treated in the family setting, was that it was always a home scenario where we would talk about people who had passed away, and she would talk about her little brother who she loved and told fun stories about him. He died before I was born, but you know, she would always talk fondly about him and share stories.
“Whenever there’s a funeral in the family, the occasion itself would be somber, and you’d be sad about the loss of that person. But afterwards you’d come together and you’d have music, and you’d have food and you’d tell stories, and everyone was there to live in the happy memories of that person.”
Coco will hopefully create some family memories of its own when it opens just in time for Thanksgiving on Nov. 22.
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