In Pixar’s new film Coco, a 12-year-old boy finds himself stuck on the wrong side of the afterlife which, it turns out, isn’t too drastically different from our own world — it just happens to have a few more skeletons (and really, who among us hasn’t already encountered one or two lifeless co-workers on this mortal plane?).
The Land of the Dead is the rich setting for the animation studio’s next original feature (in theaters Nov. 22) revolving around an aspiring musician named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) and the accidental act of grave robbery that earns him a one-way trip there. Since Día de los Muertos is the busiest day of the year for the departed, the city is bustling with families heading to the corporeal realm to visit their living relatives — and Miguel, stuck between both worlds, gets a front row seat to the inside operations of the great, grand, glittering world of the deceased.
A lot of Coco’s most stunning imagery can be found in the film’s extravagant Land of the Dead setting, which was heavily inspired by Victorian-era architecture and the work of iconic artist José Guadalupe Posada. “A lot of folk art and images that people are used to seeing associated with the celebration of Día de los Muertos are directly influenced by Posada,” explains director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3). “We leaned into that Victorian aesthetic that he embraced, creating his art at the turn of the century, and that ended up influencing a lot of the design, costuming, style, and architecture in our world.”
Don’t let the abundance of waistcoats and tweed vests inhibit your ability to connect to the Land of the Dead, though. Designed to feel as familiar as possible, Coco’s underworld fills in the gaps between all its skeletal ribcages with those meaty organs of societal function that mirror the communities and cities we know. It’s our world, just…deader. “You have to think about how this all works,” says Unkrich, whose approach to world-building hinges on a tempered imagination. “We like to find a logic to everything we do and not just make up things to make up things. I find, personally, that the more fantastical people get with world-building and the less relatable it is, you remain kind of emotionally distanced from it. Actually, I would liken the Land of the Dead a bit to what we did in Monsters, Inc., where we created Monstropolis, this familiar but fantastical world of monsters, where there was a lot that’s unique and delightful about it, but it’s also rooted in a world that we know. We did the same thing here in our vision of the afterworld.”
The city of Monsters, Inc., despite its tentacled tenants and energy sources predicated upon the fear of children, populated its wild Monstropolis with very un-wild sushi restaurants and grocery grossery stores. The idea here in Coco is the same — skeletons haven’t lost their human side simply because they’re less human. Unkrich’s team made a key early decision to help keep afloat the bustle of the Land of the Dead. “We had this notion that whatever your job was in life, that’s still your job in the afterlife, for better or worse,” chuckles the director. “There are people that still have to do the same kind of boring, bureaucratic jobs that they did in life.”
Case in point: The Department of Family Reunions, one of Miguel’s first destinations when he encounters his real ancestors in the Land of the Dead. It’s here, where some comings and goings of the afterlife are organized, that Miguel is given an opportunity to return to his living life with a heavily conditioned blessing by his great-great-grandmother Mamá Imelda. (Whether he actually takes that opportunity is another story entirely.) The bureaucracy-happy clerk is played by comedian Gabriel Iglesias.
As familiar as the Land of the Dead may look, though, Unkrich and the filmmakers made another choice that definitively separates Coco’s world from Monstropolis or, say, the pun-loaded city of Zootopia. “In terms of Starbucks and that kind of thing, I made a decision early on that I didn’t want to lean into pop culture references on this film,” Unkrich explains. “It’s an easy gag to do stuff like that, and we try to make films that are timeless. I want people to be watching these films 75 years from now, and who knows what will be out in the world then? We tried to not go for that easy pop culture reference laugh.” Therefore, in the Land of the Dead, don’t expect the cadaverous storefronts to thickly lay on the skeletal wordplay. Maybe next time, Foot Locker.