Pixar's Coco received praise from all corners thanks to its heartwarming story that brought Mexican culture to the forefront of global cinema. However, the original idea for Coco was going to be something quite different. I recently had an opportunity to speak with Coco director Lee Unkrich ahead of this week's digital release of Coco and he told me that his original pitch for the film wasn't going to be about a Mexican boy, but rather an American one with a Mexican family. However, after learning about the Dia de Los Muertos, Unkrich realized that his idea was exactly the opposite of the story he should be telling. First, he explained what the original idea he pitched to Pixar was going to be. According to Unkrich:
The first story that we developed for about 8 months or so, there was still a boy as the main character, but he was an American boy and he had a father who was American. His mother had been from Mexico but she had passed away right before the story started and it was a story about the father taking the boy down to Mexico to meet his Mexican family for the first time on Dia de Los Muertos. A series of strange events happened and the boy ended up going to the land of the dead. But ultimately that story, there was no Ernesto de la Cruz or any of that, it was a journey film that ultimately was about this kid coming to grips with his mother being gone and saying goodbye to her and letting go of her.
This first pitch feels very much like a Pixar movie. It's an emotional journey for a character which, if done well, means an emotional journey for the audience as well. The problem, as Lee Unkrich explained to me, was that after traveling to Mexico and really beginning to learn about what Dia de Los Muertos means to Mexico, he eventually realized that you can't tell a story that's a realistic depiction of Mexican culture, and tell a story about letting go of the dead, as the two ideas simply don't match. He clarified:
I realized at a certain point that the more that we were learning about Day of the Dead and what it's all about, I realized that we were telling a story that was completely antithetical, thematically, to what Dia de Los Muertos is all about. Because Dia de Los Muertos is about never letting go. It's about the importance of, remember your ancestors, and keeping their memories alive and we were telling a story that was from a very American, western, perspective about letting go and grieving. So at that point, I realized we needed to start over.
With this new perspective, the story that became Coco began to take form, and eventually, we got the movie that has become the highest grossing box office movie in Mexico's history. It's not a stretch to think that probably would not have been the case if the movie had simply used the Day of the Dead as a tool to tell a more American story. The original idea might not have been a bad movie, but it would not have been the right movie, as it would not have been an accurate depiction of the culture Unkrich was trying to spotlight.
If you somehow missed the excellent and heartwarming tale in theaters, you can now fix that error. Coco is now on Digital and will be available on Blu-ray February 27.