In Mexico, November begins with the festivities of Dia de los Muertos, celebrating in life those who have passed but are still remembered through our memories and stories. That custom is what Disney and Pixar had in mind with their latest film, Coco, which will be released closer to our family gathering holiday and will hopefully inspire folks from all walks of life to see themselves in a family from another place.
The films centers on young Miguel, who has creative musical dreams in a family where music is banned after a family squabble generations before. Frustrated that his parents and grandmother haven’t moved on, he tries to compete in a singing contest but finds himself missing an instrument after his abuelita destroys his makeshift guitar. Breaking into the grave of an iconic singer that may just be the family member who walked away for fame and fortune, he unlocks a pathway to the Land of the Dead, where he’ll have to answer to more family members who hope they can get through to him before his dream costs him his mortal state. Along with Dante, a stray dog, and Hector, a skeleton desperate to get to the land of the living, Miguel searches for a part of his family that might just grant him a blessing to follow his dreams.
Recently directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, along with cast members Anthony Gonzalez (Miguel), Gael Garcia Bernal (Hector), Edward James Olmos (Chicharron), and Alanna Ubach (Mama Imelda) sat down to speak with journalists about the film and what it means for them to be able to share this beautiful cultural tradition with the world during the season where we celebrate family and love.
Co-director Adrian Molina had been working on Monsters University when he hopped onboard to team up with Lee Unkrich.
Adrian Molina: It has been the highlight of my career up to this point. It’s just one of those ideas that checked off the boxes of so many things that I’ve always wanted to see in a film – that it deals so strongly with this idea of family, Miguel and his musical passion, and especially the expression of these Mexican traditions.You know, it’s one of those things that I felt like I had a lot of experience to bring to it, and the way we work at Pixar, it’s such a collaborative effort, and to be able to work with all of these actors, all of these musicians, and to really bring to life this culture on screen was something that I was thrilled by.
Lee Unkrich revealed the filmmakers weren’t sure Coco would be a musical, until Anthony Gonzalez came in to audition for the role of Miguel.
Lee Unkrich: At his very first audition, we had him read a bunch of scenes, script pages. And then when we were all done, he took out a CD, and he said, “I brought a song I want to sing to you.” At that point we didn’t even know if Miguel was going to be singing in the movie, so that wasn’t part of the audition, and unfortunately we didn’t have a CD player that day, where we were. So Anthony, true to his great spirit just said, “Oh, well, whatever – I’ll just sing it a cappella.” And he launched into this beautiful 10-minute long, sweet rendition of this song, sung just to the few of us. We were already wowed by his audition, and then that just really sealed the deal.
Anthony Gonzalez: I love to sing, and especially these wonderful songs that Adrian Molina, Germaine Franco, and other people made – they’re just incredible messages. I just love the rhythm, and the melody, and the lyrics, like, “Remember me” – it’s very sentimental. And for me, my grandfather passed away when I was six years old, and he was very special to me because he would always support me in my music career. Every time I would come to sing it would remind me of him, and it would make me feel like he was there, and he was present with me.
Legendary Mexican-American actor Edward James Olmos plays a small but pivotal role in the film as Chicarron, a friend of Hector’s. He spoke about seeing the finished work for the first time, and the emotional impact it had on him as a performer.
Edward James Olmos: When they asked me to play the role, I was privileged. They’d been working on this for six years, you know, and so two years ago, I did this. Lo and behold, I go see the piece, and amazing feelings came across immediately – the quality was superb; the feeling, the music, the sound, everything. Performances were extraordinary. And as it went along, my part came in, and I said, “Oh, my God,” I felt emotional for this guy. And Chicharron became, within a matter of a minute and a half to two minutes, became someone that I could identify with, you know? A relative, a friend.
So then the story started to evolve and by the time it got to the end, I was in heaving sobs. And I mean, harsh, heaving sobs, you know, like one of those kind of things that – not only is pride taking over, because I am Mexican, full blooded on everybody’s side; not only am I a person who has been inside of this industry for over 50 years; not only have I really tried to understand myself inside of this art form – but this really became something really profound. And so what ended up happening is that I looked around immediately, because I was in the last chair, in the back. And I looked around, and you know, these people were all crying – everybody. Everybody was like so intensely, just trying to hold onto it, and wiping their faces, and holding on, and watching the movie. I said, “Hell, this thing just hit everybody like a ton of bricks.”
And the brilliance of it was the real beauty of the storytelling. People are gonna see this movie, are gonna come out really moved, especially if you haven’t thought about your parents, or you haven’t thought about your loved ones, and you haven’t really gotten into your own family, and you’ve been too busy living your life, that you haven’t gone back to even say thank you. So they’re gonna walk out, and they’re gonna feel an emptiness, and they’re gonna try to fill that emptiness with the knowledge of what they just got. That’s why I’m so grateful.
Six years ago, you didn’t know that we’d be politically in the shape that we’re in – nobody did. Nobody knew that Mexicans were gonna be treated like they’ve been treated over the last year – nobody. The last two years have been very difficult for us.This thing placed us in a very strong position for the future. People are gonna say “thank you” to the Mexican culture for introducing them to a value that they did not know anything about.
Alanna Ubach, who portrays Mama Imelda, spoke about the beauty of the holiday being celebrated by Pixar in an authentic and respectful way.
Alanna Ubach: Well, I think it was very important for Pixar to make a movie like this, because they painted such an exquisite portrait of the afterlife. And so you can only hope that my son, when he’s old enough to understand this movie, he can walk away saying, “Mama, I am not afraid of death. I’m not afraid of the afterlife.” What a beautiful world this would be if the afterlife was like this. Could you imagine? And also, that they really did pay such a respect to the one quality that Latin families and Latin American families have across, and that is the importance of familia, and that is something that no presidents, or borders, or politics can ever break – that importance, the importance of familia.
Gael Garcia Bernal expressed pride in being part of Coco, and stressed the importance for young Latino children to experience it and learn from its message.
Gael Garcia Bernal: I’m really happy and proud, and lucky to be part of this, with this great team and me being a little part of it, being able to put forth into the world a little fable about a mythology and a tradition that I hold very dearly.
This film is for the kids, the Latino kids growing in the United States, because in the official narrative, it’s been said that their parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents are rapists, murderers, drug traffickers. And these kids are being born in a moment of huge, complete fear, and they have to fight against the lie, and it’s very complicated to argue against the lie. This film is gonna give kids a way to feel confident of where they come from, of where their parents, great-grandparents, grandparents come from, to know that they come from a very sophisticated culture, and to know that they have the possibility to always have access to that. This film opens up that discussion, and it is a beautiful reflection on death, and the celebration life.
Coco opens Wednesday, November 22, in theaters everywhere.