At the center of Pixar’s next original film, Coco, is a 12-year-old boy who’s breaking all the rules — or at least his family’s.
Miguel, voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez, is a member of the shoemaking Riveras, your average Mexican family that’s completely banned music for generations. So, maybe not so average. Ever since his great-great-grandmother Imelda was left alone by her husband (who abandoned his family to pursue a life hitting high notes), there’s been a strict no-music ban in the Rivera household, upheld primarily by Miguel’s Abuela (Renee Victor).
That won’t stop Miguel from pursuing his passion, having grown up idolizing the music and advice of the late singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). In fact, it’s his worship of De La Cruz—and a shocking discovery about him—that’s brought Miguel to the singer’s grave…and you, reader, to EW’s exclusive new first look at Coco.
In the shot above, you’re catching Miguel in a beautiful, pivotal moment: He’s just committed a literal grave act and borrowed — just borrowed! — the guitar hanging in De La Cruz’s tomb. Unfortunately, it’s Dia de Muertos, and Miguel’s well-intentioned deed of grave robbery is badly-timed, and he’s about to be inadvertently sent to the Land of the Dead, where he’ll come face to face with the same great-great-relatives who banned music in his family. Just guess how happy they’ll be when they find out how he got there.
Still, don’t call Coco Pixar’s first musical. Director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) says the film isn’t “a break-out-into-song musical,” but rather, one “set against the backdrop of musical performance.” Moreover, it’s not even Unkrich’s first time choreographing at the musical rodeo: “At the end of Toy Story 3, we had this moment where Jessie turns on the boom-box and the Gipsy Kings do a Spanish language version of ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me.’ Which, it turned out, ended up being a real precursor to this movie.”
In telling a story about such a rich tradition as Dia de Muertos, Unkrich knew that Coco didn’t just rest on one family’s history, but on an entire culture’s. “The day John Lasseter gave the thumbs up for this movie, I immediately felt this huge weight drop onto my shoulders because I knew that we were doing something different than we had ever made at the studio and that for the first time, we were going to have this enormous responsibility to do right by this culture and not lapse into stereotype or cliché,” he tells EW.
The result is that Unkrich secured an all-Latino voice cast (including Gael Garcia Bernal as a skeleton named Hector who helps Miguel on his journey in the Land of the Dead) and sought authenticity via numerous story consultants, key crew members and filmmakers (like co-director Adrian Molina), and musical talent culled from artists down in Mexico. Unkrich, Molina, and producer Darla K. Anderson made frequent trips south of the border (in fact, Lasseter approved the film just three weeks before one Dia de Muertos fell, spurring a first-time scramble to not miss out) and soon sent his story artists, production designers, and even sound crew down to take the aesthetic pulse of villages.
Of interesting note is that in Unkrich’s efforts for cultural authenticity, an unfortunate misstep plagued the earliest announcements of Coco (which is titled after Miguel’s grand-grandmother). In 2013, Disney filed an application to trademark “Dia de Los Muertos,” back when Coco did not have its title, and the studio was harshly criticized for its attempt to co-opt the national holiday. As Unkrich explains, “There was never any conscious effort to try to trademark a holiday because that’s crazy, and we would never try to do that. But it happened, and we regret it, and we’re so sorry for it. And I know for all of us, it affected us really deeply. It was devastating, because we knew what we were trying to do and we had taken on this responsibility of trying to do everything right, and so it really was painful to know that the first public perception of our film had to do with that.”
But, he says, good came out of it: “It reinforced our desire to make sure that we reached out to as many experts as we could and to involve as many people in telling this story accurately. This is a story we want to share with the world, but it’s also been particularly important to us that when the Latino community sees the film, that it resonates and it feels like we got it right, and that’s what we’re really trying to do. We all feel the gravity.”
Coco arrives in theaters November 22, 2017.