Perhaps Disney/Pixar is playing with the house's money, with billions in grosses and a boatload of Oscars. But for the animated gamble "Coco" to work, it had to hit a parlay.
Sure, the film had Oscar winner Lee Unkrich ("Toy Story 3") writing and directing, but it was also betting on young and unproven co-writer and co-director Adrian Molina. The American film uses more Spanish language than most and delves into Mexican culture; its music and its celebration of Dia de los Muertos. That made it a kids' film with a whole bunch of dead people in it. And about a year and a half into development, 2014's similarly themed "The Book of Life" came out.
Unkrich says that, on seeing "Book," his collaborators were relieved to find the two very musical, mainstream, American animated movies centered on Dia de los Muertos were vastly different.
"We ended up not changing anything at all," says Unkrich. "In the end, there are a lot of Christmas movies in the world, so why not have a few Dia de los Muertos films?"
The gamble seems to have paid off, with "Coco" landing at the top of the Thanksgiving box office with $50 million in ticket sales.
In the story, young Miguel wants to become a musician like his idol, famed crooner Ernesto de la Cruz. During the holiday to remember departed loved ones, he finds himself transported to the domain of the dead. There, the spirits of his recent ancestors, De la Cruz himself and a scrappy fellow named Hector get involved in Miguel's mostly comic quest to return to the land of the living. The film is full of authentic touches and Mexican iconography brought to life on its way to an emotional destination.
Molina, a California native of Mexican ancestry, had worked as an animator, story artist and writer on such Pixar titles as "Monsters University" and "The Good Dinosaur."
"They've had trouble stopping me from throwing my opinions around and all the things I wished for this film," says the 32-year-old Molina. "I found myself going home and writing script pages, unsolicited. Trying to solve story problems. I couldn't stop myself.
"It's about music, it's about family, it's about Mexican culture – if there was ever a film I was going to go all in on, if 'Coco's' not it, I don't know what is."
The project, and especially Molina, was aided by several cultural consultants. "They were always pushing for more Spanish language, which I wanted, but … you have to navigate how comfortable people are going to be if all the characters are speaking Spanish," says Molina.
Veteran producer Darla K. Anderson says, "We brought our consultants in quite early on, [showing them early, incomplete footage], which is just not normal for Pixar. We had to be open to them being part of our trusted team."
Unkrich says, "It was like getting up in front of them in my underwear and pitching them the story."
Unkrich points to their advice on "the way people interact. We were encouraged to let characters touch each other a lot."
One suggestion involved the habit of Miguel's abuelita (grandmother) of carrying a wooden spoon in her apron for when she became angry.
"A couple of our advisors said, 'No, no, no, it has to be la chancla, her slipper; she's got to pull off her sandal to hit people.' And that really made sense because Miguel comes from a family of shoemakers," says Unkrich, laughing. "The Latino community has been extremely appreciative of that detail."
With the help of musical consultant Camilo Lara and composer Germaine Franco, Unkrich, Molina and Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino imbued the film with Mexican-flavored sounds. Franco was first charged with helping the Oscar-winning team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez transform their original song "Remember Me" into certain Mexican styles. Her role expanded until she worked with Molina on the film's other songs. Franco wanted to represent styles beyond mariachi and the bombastic crooning of De la Cruz, such as jarocho and trio. "One of my personal goals was to honor my family's heritage, so had my grandfather been alive, it would have been something he recognized as Mexican," she says.
None of these bets would pay off, though, if the film didn't hit an emotional jackpot.
Franco says, "At the premiere in Michoacan [in Morelia, a city noted for its Dia de los Muertos celebrations], it was kind of a posh event, there were all these politicians and patrons of the arts. People were crying, but trying to hide it. But when I saw it in Mexico City, people were really crying. And I think it's OK."