‘Coco’ journeys to Mexico and beyond the grave

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NEW YORK — Pixar films have never been shy about death. The “Toy Story” films are, in part, about mortality. The poetic highlight of “Up” is a wordless sequence of a spouse’s passing. The Earth, itself, was left for dead in “Wall-E.”

But Pixar plunges fully into the afterlife in “Coco,” a brightly colored fable surrounding the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

The imagery of skeletons and graves in a kids’ movie might have put off other animation studios. But director Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3,” “Monsters, Inc.”) envisioned a film about family and keeping alive the memories of deceased loved ones.

It’s also a celebration of Mexico, as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy who dreams of becoming a musician. But after a feud with his family, he slips into a wondrous netherworld where he depends on his long-dead ancestors to restore him to the land of the living.

“Coco” is Pixar’s first feature film with a minority lead character, and one of the largest American productions ever to feature an almost entirely Latino cast (among them Benjamin Bratt and Gael Garcia Bernal). That makes it something of a landmark event, one that has already set box-office records in Mexico where it opened several weeks early.

But it also took a lot of homework and a lot of outreach for Pixar to convince Latinos that the production wasn’t just big-budget cultural appropriation.

Charting a different path, Pixar brought in cultural consultants, including playwright Octavio Solis and cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz. Unkrich retailored the film’s approach, doubling down on efforts to create an authentic celebration of Mexican folklore, traditions and music.

“We took every pain that we could along the way to surround ourselves with cultural consultants, to spend a lot of time in Mexico, specifically embedding ourselves with Mexican families down there,” said Unkrich. “I knew that there would be a fear that we were going to lapse into cliche and stereotype and so we did everything we could to not let that happen.”

Pixar also looked within its own ranks to help Unkrich craft a culturally faithful tale. Adrian Molina, an animator on previous Pixar releases, serves as co-director and helped steer the script.

“Growing up Mexican-American, I know the transformative power that seeing yourself represented onscreen has,” says Molina. “My hope is for anyone who’s a small Latino or Latina kid and sees this film that that has an impact on how they see themselves. And if you’re coming from a different experience, recognizing the fact that there’s Latino and Latina heroes and the beauty of a Mexican family.”

Hispanics are one of the largest demographics of regular moviegoers, yet they are seldom catered to. They last year accounted for 23 percent of frequent moviegoers in the U.S. and Canada, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

Mexican music, too, plays a central role in the film. For that, composer Michael Giacchino (“Up,” “Ratatouille”) collaborated with Mexican-American composer Germaine Franco. A research team was dispatched to Mexico City to bring back musical styles from throughout the country. And DJ and producer Camilo Lara served as musical consultant.

“It was important for me to know as much as I could about every style, every location in Mexico — how the music differs from place to place,” said Giacchino. “I really wanted the music to feel authentic real. So homework was a huge part of the job. Normally, music is the job. This had the extra layer of homework.”