The question of what happens after we die has plagued humanity since the first apes started hitting each other over the head with pointy rocks. It’s been tackled endlessly in literature, film, and television, and it’s starting to get stale. But Pixar’s latest, the Mexican Day of the Dead-inspired Coco, threatens to liven things up.
Coco stars new actor Anthony Gonzalez as Miguel Rivera, a young boy who wants to follow in the footsteps of his musical idol, the great Ernesto De La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). But Miguel’s family, devoted shoemakers, hates music, and he has to play guitar in secret. The movie is set during the Mexican Dia de los Muertos festival–the Day of the Dead–and Pixar went to great lengths to make sure it’s respectful of Mexican culture.
But they hit a wall when it came time to send Miguel to the world of the dead partway through the film. There’s a problem with the Mexican version of the afterlife: There isn’t one, the filmmakers discovered.
“In all of our research and all of the people that we spent time with and families we spent time with down in Mexico, we would often ask them what their vision was of an afterlife, and pretty consistently, people would just say ‘I don’t know,'” Coco co-director Lee Unkrich, whose previous directing credits include Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and Toy Story 2 and 3, told press during a visit to Pixar headquarters in Emeryville, Calif. “There wasn’t like, some set vision of an afterlife tied to Dia de los Muertos. So we found that we were pretty much left on our our own to figure that out.”
We don’t want to reveal too much, but Coco‘s afterlife draws from a number of inspirations, from Pedro Linares’s iconic, colorful alebrijes to the traditions of the holiday itself, where a path of marigold petals leads loved ones back to the land of the living for a single night.
“We definitely looked at everything. We looked at every movie we could think of that had some depiction of an afterlife or heaven. And in most cases it kind of showed me what I didn’t want to do,” Unkrich said. “We tried to forge our own path and do something kind of unique and different than what anyone had ever done. We tried to keep it grounded in a reality, rather than going for just a completely crazy, anything goes kind of environment. We tried to have a logic to our land of the dead.”
In Coco‘s spirit world, you can’t get back across the marigold bridge unless your descendants remembered to include your portrait on the ofrenda–each family’s Dia de los Muerto altar. Once there, Miguel is greeted by previous generations of his family, who have their own problems to deal with–chief among them reaching the Riveras’ ofrenda.
“If you think of the Day of the Dead from the point of view of the dead, this is the one day of the year where they go back and see their family and check in with how they’ve grown and how the family has expanded,” said Coco‘s other co-director, Adrian Molina. “It really lent itself to creating excitement and an energy that you would feel throughout this land for the whole night.”
In Coco‘s land of the dead, life basically goes on, and whatever job you had in real life is what you keep on doing when you die–although you’re now a skeleton and can only enjoy food again on one night of the year: the Day of the Dead.
“That might be great for some people,” Unkrich said. “It might suck for some people to keep doing what they do. But we just wanted to have some ground rules so that there was some structure to the society–and especially because we wanted the Riveras to still be making shoes, even in the afterlife, so that Miguel really didn’t have anything to look forward to.”
That may sound grim, but it’s also what pushes Miguel to keep seeking Ernesto De La Cruz–even into the afterlife.
Coco is now in theaters.