Disney•Pixar’s COCO | Embracing Cultural Depth

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"Disney•Pixar’s COCO | Embracing Cultural Depth"

Pixar pleasantries are second to none. They really go to infinity and beyond. In fact, way beyond most of us could ever image. In doing so, it begs the ultimate question: what makes Pixar what it is? Its unique, vibrant characters or those who create them? This can be argued till our faces turn blue. Either way, the world always embraces Pixar’s universe. Their upcoming title, COCO, has struck a chord and it hasn’t been released. (Yet!) Alongside an all Latino cast, geared in exposing cultural beauty, the overall scope focuses on a soul-searching journey between the Land of the Living and Land of the Dead. Cinematically embracing depths behind one of Mexico’s most popular holidays (Dia de los Muertos), it all narrows down to unbreakable ties and love among family.

COCO | © 2017 Disney•Pixar

Despite his family’s baffling generations-old ban on music, Miguel (voice of newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt). Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself in the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead following a mysterious chain of events. Along the way, he meets charming trickster Hector (voice of Gael García Bernal), and together, they set off on an extraordinary journey to unlock the real story behind Miguel’s family history. 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 opens in U.S. theaters on November 22, 2017.

Earlier in the month I was granted an opportunity to participate in one of the most unique and beautiful pre-release, press events ever. Centered around COCO, journalists were treated to an early footage screening, among other behind-the-scene activities. Upon my/our way to Emeryville, the enthusiasm was as magical as the film’s teasers. Following a brief introduction by its writer (screenplay) and co-director Adrian Molina, what quickly strikes (and to no surprise) is the amount of time that went into it creating the piece as a whole. Since 2011, COCO’s birth entailed some serious research (obviously) that took the crew back to the motherland of Méjico! Upon “setting up camp” during a fun-filled, vibrant, welcoming celebration of Dia de los Muertos, it was evident of an ambiance with much more power than originally thought of. Kicking into gear and racking up as much information, images, spiritual essence, and lots of technical advice from influential leaders among the Latino community, Pixar headquarters was hard at work in developing a story with as much authenticity as possible.

Lee Unkrich, Darla Anderson and Adrian Molina present at “Coco” Long Lead Press Day, which included a filmmaker roundtable, presentations about the music, story, characters and set designs of the film, on August 3, 2017 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Marc Flores / Pixar)

It was made clear the film wasn’t complete. But the confidence Mr. Molina oozed on what they’ve worked on was quite amusing and persuasive. Off it went, and within the first few minutes (of about thirty-five total) of the film, it was quite a charm. An impressive experience if I may add! Even without its original music (which started recording August 14th) and some storyboard shots cut in between some of its finalized animation, one can actually feel the story’s soul. Crisp audio, mixed with an illuminating display of colors, intriguing set-pieces, and a touch of Latino flavor makes for a unique recipe of thrilling enjoyment. It’s its own piece. Cute characters and immersive animation will once again present a narrative I’m sure will hold its audience hostage. Another Pixar dreamscape that’ll tug at the heart, while balancing it with smiles.

FAMILY REUNION – In Disney•Pixar’s “Coco,” aspiring musician Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez) makes an impulsive choice that sets off a series of events that ultimately lands him in the Land of the Dead where he’s able to interact with his late family members, including Tía Rosita (voice of Selene Luna), Tía Victoria, Papá Julio (voice of Alfonso Arau), and Tío Oscar and Tío Felipe (both voiced by Herbert Siguenza). Disney•Pixar’s “Coco” opens in U.S. theaters on Nov. 22, 2017. ©2017 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Inspired by what was absorbed in Oaxaca (a state in southern Mexico known for their indigenous cultures), the aura between the living and dead generated an unforgettable feeling. Most of its décor and costumes embrace what some on our planet may consider taboo or frightening. Worshipping ancestors with altars that illuminate portraits by the flickering of burning candles, and welcoming their spirits back home with guided petals, displays more than just familial bond. It’s more like eternal unity. Its common symbol of expression within the realm of this celebratory existence is the human skeleton – a vital component that oddly grants COCO part of its life. As some of the most important players in Miguel’s journey (mainly Hector), it’s the skeletal ones that make a unique impression.

“Coco” concept art – Hector (Voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal) | © 2017 Disney•Pixar

Getting these characters on screen was no easy feat. Not that animated images of skeletons haven’t been used before, but making them cute (in a Pixarish kinda way) entails some serious brainwaves. Why? Well, let’s keep in mind this a film mainly for children. Amidst all the charm experienced during the event, I was curious about the workings and feelings on making skeletons appealing. Luckily, I was granted a few minutes to sit and chat with Daniel Arriaga (Character Art Director), Gini Santos (Supervising Animator), Byron Bashforth (Character Shading Lead), and Emron Grover (Simulation Technical Director) about the process.

Simulation Technical Director Emron Grover, Supervising Animator Gini Santos and Character Art Director Daniel Arriaga at “Coco” Long Lead Press Day, which included a filmmaker roundtable, presentations about the music, story, characters and set designs of the film, on August 4, 2017 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

Off the bat, Daniel Arriaga takes the bait on his first thoughts: “Woe! That’s a big challenge. Skeletons kinda scare me, but then I started thinking about skeletons that haven’t scared me. One of them being Jack Skellington. I wasn’t scared by him. He was creepy naturally, but that was his character. Then I thought of the old Disney cartoon where they’re dancing around with skeletons. They weren’t scary to me, either. Not just the shapes, but the way that they were acting. The way they were performing. They’re soft. They’re playful. So, I felt if we could design our own Pixar skeletons and create a bunch of them, and make them look and feel appealing with our instinct and our taste, and make sure they’re not creepy-looking, it was just going to get better every step of the way. They would be appealing characters. and not scary.”

COCO – Concept art by John Nevarez. ©2017 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Appealing they are and successful the whole team was. As everyone else expresses their overall thoughts about the process (full interview below), I can assure you what was shown visually in terms of its workings of characteristics, mobility, overall clothing display, etc. the dynamic team of animators present skeletons in a way we’ve never seen before. Personable and witty, personally, among its “Skeleton Crew,” Hector so far stands out as the skeletal star among stars in COCO. As one of the most anticipated films of the year, it’s going to be interesting to see how the general audience reacts to it. Whatever the outcome, rest assured Pixar will once again brand another title with unforgettable characters in our brains.

MAGIC – When aspiring musician Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez) finds himself in the Land of the Dead, all he needs to return to the Land of the Living is a blessing from a family member, a magical marigold petal and a promise he’s not sure he can make. Directed by Lee Unkrich, co-directed by Adrian Molina and produced by Darla K. Anderson, Disney•Pixar’s “Coco” opens in U.S. theaters on Nov. 22, 2017. ©2017 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


© 2017 Disney•Pixar