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How 'Coco' writers/directors did justice to the tradition of Día de los Muertos

An image from the Disney/Pixar film,
An image from the Disney/Pixar film, "Coco."
An image from the Disney/Pixar film,
(L-R) Actors Herbert Siguenza, John Ratzenberger, Benjamin Bratt, Renee Victor, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Anthony Gonzalez, Alanna Ubach, Gael Garcia Bernal, Selene Luna, Blanca Araceli, Edward James Olmos, Jaime Camil, and Lombardo Boyar at the premiere of Disney Pixar's "Coco."
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Pixar’s latest film, “Coco,” dominated the five-day holiday weekend, bringing in $71.2 million in domestic ticket sales and more than $82 million overseas.

Co-directed and co-written by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, "Coco" tells the story of Miguel Rivera, a young boy from a Mexican shoemaking family who wants nothing more than to become a famous musician like his idol, Ernesto De La Cruz. The story delves into themes of family, tradition, remembering those who've died, and following your dreams. 

We caught up with Unkrich and Molina the day after they premiered the film in Hollywood, and they were both excited by the audience's reaction.

Adrian Molina: We've been working on this film for six years and part of that process is putting up ideas and tearing down those ideas. You're kind of emotionally involved in all of the decisions that end up on screen, so the story that we see is a little different than what the audiences are experiencing. That's kind of my entertainment — to sit in that audience and see where they're emoting and see where they lean on each other and see where they laugh. It's a different way of experiencing the film, but it reminds us of things that were exciting when we put them in, and to see that those elements are affecting audiences and are affecting audiences and do remain after all this time.

Lee Unkrich: Every audience is different. We'll have one screening where a joke will get a big laugh and then the next screening it'll be completely silent. And they're both theaters of disparate people, yet somehow each audience takes on a new dynamic, so it keeps it interesting. 

On premiering the film in Mexico:

AM: It was a little nerve-wracking because you want it to be received with the same intention that you build the story out of. And the response was so warm. People were walking out of the theaters, tears in their eyes, I've had experiences where people could barely even speak, but you could tell that they just needed a hug because this story touched something in them — both from a personal standpoint because it's about family and maybe people that you've lost. But also from a cultural standpoint, [people saying], Thank you for showing how beautiful my culture is in such a big way. It's been such an emotional experience for us, but we're so glad that people see this as what it was meant to be — this expression of love and appreciation for a beautiful culture, to create this story that we hoped could move a lot of people

On hearing about Jorge Gutierrez's 2014 Day of the Dead film, "The Book of Life":

LU: At the time that I first thought to make this film, one of the reasons I was really excited was that I felt like in the entire history of cinema I had seen almost no exploration of Día de los Muertos, so it felt very unique to me. When we found out about "The Book of Life," I was a bit dismayed initially, just because it automatically rendered what we were doing less unique. Once I saw "Book of Life" when it came out, and was relieved that Jorge was telling a completely different story than the one we'd been developing for several years, I knew we could just forge ahead and tell our own story. At the end of the day we felt like there are a lot of Christmas movies in the world and nobody complains that there's more than one Christmas movie, so, we feel like this is a lovely tradition, a lovely celebration, and the more the merrier. Let's have more films about Mexican culture.

On the hiring cultural consultants such as cartoonist Lalo Alcaráz, who criticized the Disney company for trying to trademark "Día de los Muertos": 

LU: There was an unfortunate thing that happened very early on in the making of our film. We didn't know what we were going to call the film back then and one of the possible titles that we kicked around was Día de los Muertos. When that title got registered, it kicked into gear some things we wished hadn't happened, [which] we regretted and apologized for. But it ended up being kind of a blessing in disguise, because it really showed us that we needed to do everything we could and leave no stone unturned when it came to being culturally respectful. And so it was at that point that we brought on a real core team of cultural advisors, including Marcela Davison-Aviles, Octavio Solis and Lalo Alcaráz. He's a very outspoken political cartoonist in the Latino community and we reached out to him. He was a harsh critic and we thought that he would be one of the best people to bring into our tent and have him advise us and really help us do this film right. Lalo was involved pretty much all the way along through the making of the film.

On the importance of people seeing characters who they can relate to on screen:

AM: From my personal experience, I can say that being able to see yourself reflected on the screen is completely transformative.When we make these films, we're not making them necessarily to appeal to a certain segment of the audience ...We're just looking to tell great stories. That being said, this has been a really wonderful experience that a lot of people are going to recognize as being reflective of them, to see themselves as the protagonists and to say, My story is a story that's worth being told. That means a lot to a person's soul.

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