Pixar's winning way with death: Our film critic talks to Coco director Lee Unkrich about making the skeletal dead 'cuddly'
The studio's latest animation brilliantly imagines a colourful Mexican afterlife. Our film critic talks to Coco director Lee Unkrich about the challenges of making the skeletal dead 'cuddly'
The trouble with being the best at something is that the only way is down.
Since arriving with a big bang in the mid-1990s with Toy Story, Pixar has dominated and reinvigorated the animation genre, spawning a host of imitators. With films like Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles, WALL-E and Up, the studio has achieved the most radical advances in the genre since Walt Disney made Snow White. Which perhaps makes it appropriate that Pixar was subsumed by Disney a decade or so, with no apparent ill effects.
But in the last few years, consistent excellence has become a rod for the studio's back. Though I liked it, their prehistoric drama The Good Dinosaur failed to connect with cinemagoers, and while Finding Dory most certainly did, most critics considered it inferior to its illustrious predecessor. John Lasseter's pet project Cars has always delighted small boys but no one else, and last year's Cars 3 hardly qualified as a Pixar classic. Then Lasseter was forced to stand aside for a while following claims of "inappropriate hugging". As never before, the studio needed a high-quality rebound, and with Coco they certainly have one.
As with the great Disney films, Pixar's writers and directors have always worked on the assumption that small children can handle big issues like mortality, abandonment and social exclusion, provided they're cleverly packaged. And in Coco they package the hell out of death with a visually exuberant adventure set during Mexico's annual Day of the Dead.
When a guitar-mad 12-year-old boy called Miguel runs away from his music-hating family, he ends up travelling to the Land of the Dead where he meets his ancestors and learns some valuable life lessons. In a splendidly created city of the dead, skeleton spirits dance, sing, laugh, reminisce and hope that their families remember to put a photo of them on their ofrenda, or altar of remembrance. Because if no one remembers them, they'll disappear altogether.
It's a daring move, even for Pixar, but writer/director Lee Unkrich believed passionately in the project from the very start.
"It started with a basic idea for a story that was set against the tradition of Dia de Muertos," he tells me. "I had long been interested in that celebration: I lived in Los Angeles for a time, there's a big Latino community there, and I had been exposed to all the amazing iconography and folk art surrounding the holiday.
"So it had always kind of been percolating in the back of my head, but it wasn't until after we did Toy Story 3 that the idea really began to take shape. I wasn't sure exactly what it would be, though, and the very first story that I pitched had very little to do with what we ended up making."
Unkrich's original idea involved a white American child learning about Latino heritage, but he quickly decided that felt wrong, and that the film should be properly Mexican. "We knew from the very beginning that we wanted to avoid all the usual lazy stereotypes and clichés. So we asked one of the first consultants we met with to make a list of every cliché that has ever bothered her about the depiction of the Latino culture in Hollywood. It was a long list, and we studiously avoided everything on it."
In preparation for Coco, Unkrich and his team "spent a long time down in Mexico, travelling all over the country and living with families, finding out all we could about this tradition. So everything that we put in the film was based on what we experienced."
Some things though, had to be imagined. "When we interviewed people in Mexico about the Dia de Muertos, there was no consensus on what a Land of the Dead might be like. They just shrugged when we asked, so we were really on our own to just figure it out. I wanted to create something that was unlike anything anyone had seen on screen before, and I wanted it to be really colourful and celebrate Mexico, I wanted it to be a quintessentially Mexican Land of the Dead.
"So we looked to a few places for inspiration. There's a city in Mexico called Guanajuato that is full of these really colourful buildings that just light up the countryside. So that was an inspiration, and also we looked at the history of Mexico, and the choice of setting the world on water is very similar to the beginnings of Mexico City, it originally used to be full of canals and it kind of grew up out of the water, so there's a nod to that.
"And we came up with the idea of these building-encrusted towers that were constantly growing, constantly under construction, because people are always dying so it would be a world that would have to be added on to constantly."
That city of the dead is a breathtaking creation, and so are the cunningly crafted skeletal dead, who have somehow been rendered child-friendly, even cuddly.
"We did have to take some liberties to make them appealing," Unkrich admits. "We gave them eyeballs, which is not something you typically see in skeletons, and we gave them quasi-lips. You see if you don't have lips, you just get these kind of grimacing, leering characters, and I knew that we would have some really emotional scenes in this film with some very subtle acting, and I had to make sure that the audience really connected with the characters and what they were feeling."
All of this forensic attention to detail is typical of Pixar productions, and it's a process that demands space, and time.
"The idea at our studio," explains Coco's producer Darla Anderson, "is that we're allowed to explore, and change ideas more than once and continue to get backed and supported with all faith. And we never take that for granted.
"Most of our concepts are fairly out there in a lot of ways, as they should be, because this is animation and you can really do whatever you want. But it can take time."
While those ideas are being developed, Unkrich tells me, "we screen what we've got every three or four months, and we get the 'brain trust', the top creative people at the studio together to watch them. People often give very hard notes at those sessions, but it's never ego driven, it's always about just making the movie really reach its potential. A lot of studios might lose faith and think that if somebody's struggling, they need to be replaced - whereas at Pixar we know that it's a necessary part of the process to sometimes be lost in the weeds."
PIXAR'S FIVE BEST FILMS
Toy Story 2
Toy Story was good, but this 1999 sequel was better, bringing humour and charm to the adventures of a group of toys that come to life when their owner isn’t looking. When Woody discovers that he used to be a TV star in the 1950s, his old friend Buzz must save him from the clutches of an odious collector who wants to sell him to a museum in Japan.
A Bambi for the modern age, Finding Nemo was a huge hit for Pixar, and told the story of a rebellious young clown fish who defies his father and gets caught by a diver. Nemo ends up in a Sydney dentist’s waiting room, so his father Marlin and a forgetful Blue Tang called Dory set out across the open Pacific to find him. Irresistible.
Pixar took on the superhero genre in this delightful animation about a super-family who’ve hidden their special powers for years in order to fit in until they’re forced out of retirement by the grandiose plans of an evil genius, who tries to lure them into a trap. A sequel is due out this summer.
Magnificent and surprisingly moving animation set in the year 2815, when humankind have deserted a toxic and hopelessly polluted Earth. Left behind is a lonely but industrious waste-collecting robot who watches old movies in his spare time and is a hopeless romantic. And when a probe robot is sent down by the humans, WALL-E falls in love with it.
A lonely old widower is about to lose his house and get carted off to a retirement home when he uses helium balloons to lift him and his beloved home clear of the wrecking ball. He then drifts down to South America in the company of a small boy and a talking dog. It’s delightful stuff.