An audience of animation students and assorted cartoon enthusiasts went cuckoo for “Coco,” as representatives of Pixar — co-director Adrian Molina and producer Darla K. Anderson — shared designs, insights and the first five minutes from the studio’s upcoming fall feature at the Annecy Intl. Animation Film Festival in Southern France on Friday.
Inspired by the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead), when the living honor their ancestors with gifts and celebration, “Coco” appears to be not only the most colorful Pixar film to date, but the first to concentrate so thoroughly on people of color. “I think this one’s going to be extra-specially more beautiful than all of the other Pixar films,” Anderson said, “but I’m biased.”
According to Molina, true to Pixar tradition, the creative team behind “Coco” traveled to Mexico to research the culture and context of the story, which involves a 12-year-old boy named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), forbidden from playing music by his family, who sneaks out and steals a guitar from the mausoleum of local singing legend Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) — a no-no for which he is banished to the land of the dead.
“These trips [to Mexico] have greatly influenced every part of ‘Coco’s’ production, from story to music to design, even to the way we’re lighting the film,” Anderson said, and sure enough, the fictional town of Santa Cecilia reflects the architecture and ambiance of Oaxaca, from the bright papel picado banners that line the streets (the opening credits sequence uses the cut-paper tradition to relay Miguel’s family history) to the burrito-fed body types of those who walk its streets (some of them so roly-poly they recall the future humans seen in “Wall-E,” which might take some ’splainin’ down the road).
Meanwhile, the characters waiting for Miguel in the Land of the Dead don’t have an ounce of fat — or anything else — on their bones: They’re skeletons! And as such, they provided a uniquely complicated challenge to the animators. “Skeletons don’t have muscles, so there’s nothing holding them together,” Molina said, explaining how they don’t behave according to a traditional human character rig (the digital armature that animators use to manipulate their cartoon bodies).
“It was a new challenge, but they’re risinh to meet it, and the animators are having too much fun with it,” Molina said, showing animation tests in which Miguel interacts with a all-bones character named Hector (Gael García Bernal), whose body falls apart whenever someone bumps into him, sometimes rearranging in completely silly new configurations. These tests won’t appear in the film, but served to explore how the characters might move — which explains a silly clip in which Miguel kicks a soccer ball around the screen, accidentally dislodging Hector’s head.
Different members of the Pixar team come every year to Annecy to share such elements, often repeating their presentations at D23 Expo, Siggraph and other fan/professional conventions, and as such, they’ve gotten quite polished in the way they position their work. That means there’s no room for questions, and none for editorializing as well — and yet, one can’t help but realize that the timing of “Coco’s” release (which will come out Nov. 22, a year and two weeks to the day of Trump’s election) coincides with rising conflict between the United States and its south-of-the-border neighbors.
In terms of plot, “Coco” boasts an upbeat, follow-your-dreams (ignore-your-parents) message not unlike “Ratatouille,” where Miguel’s obsession with becoming a famous musician — in a family that still holds grudges after his great-great-grandfather walked out on his wife and kids to pursue a similar goal — recalls that of Remy, a sewer rat who overcame the odds to become a celebrated French chef. It also bears a strong visual resemblance to 2014’s “The Book of Life,” which was scored by two-time Oscar-winning Argentine musician Gustavo Santaolalla.
Also missing from Pixar’s presentation was any mention of the music — which will clearly be an essential part of the film’s identity, in light of Miguel’s ambitions — although they did share a scene in which Miguel (who has disguised himself as a skeleton) goes on stage to prove himself in the Land of the Dead, only to freeze up in front of the crowd. Molina wrote the lyrics for the song that follows, though it will take more than that to earn his music-averse family’s benediction — the only way Miguel will be allowed to return to the land of the living. In the meantime, the project clearly earned the blessing of the Annecy audience, who stuck around to watch the French premiere of Pixar’s latest, “Cars 3.”