Disney•Pixar’s COCO Press Conference: The Importance of Tu Familia

Disney•Pixar’s COCO is a warm, family friendly film. The story follows a 12 year old boy named Miguel who loves music, but his family has banned it from their home. On his journey to find his musical ancestors in the Land of the Dead, Miguel discovers a generations-old mystery leading to a most extraordinary and surprising family reunion. This movie celebrates family and, very importantly, Latin Culture. Learn more about the inception and messages of COCO as we talk with the directors, producer and cast at the COCO Press Conference in Beverly Hills. Fear not, there are no spoilers here.

Talent included:

  • Benjamin Bratt (voice of “Ernesto de la Cruz”)
  • Gael Garcia Bernal (voice of “Hector”)
  • Anthony Gonzalez (voice of “Miguel”)
  • Edward James Olmos (voice of “Chicharron”)
  • Alanna Ubach (voice of “Mama Imelda”)
  • Director Lee Unkrich
  • Co-Director Adrian Molina
  • Producer Darla K. Anderson

With the Co-Directors Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina and Producer Darla K. Anderson in attendance, they were able to tell us the origins of Disney•Pixar’s COCO. It began when Lee Unkrich finished up Toy Story III with Molina and Anderson and he began to think about what to work on next. He had always been interested in the tradition of Dia de los Muertos and he started doing research.

LEE UNKRICH: The more that I dug in, the more that I learned about how central family is to this celebration, and that Dia de los Muertos is all about this obligation that we all have to remember our loved ones, and to pass their stories along. And I just really started to see the potential to tell a unique story, to tell a story that could only be told in animation, that could be visually dazzling, but also had the potential to have a real emotional core to it. And that was really kind of the beginning of this journey.

As with any Pixar film that gets the green light, the next step ascribed by John Lasseter is research, research, research! And so began the many trips to Mexico learning about their tradition and getting to know individual families. Adrian Molina, with his Mexican background, was especially happy to work on Disney•Pixar’s COCO.

ADRIAN MOLINA: It has been the highlight of my career up to this point. COCO deals so strongly with this idea of family, Miguel and his musical passion, and especially the expression of these Mexican traditions. You know, it’s one of those things that I felt like I had a lot of experience to bring to it, and also just the way we work at Pixar, it’s such a collaborative effort, and to be able to work with all of these actors, all of these musicians, and to really bring to life this culture on screen was something that I was thrilled by.

Anthony Gonzalez (13) plays the main character, Miguel, and this was his first film. He was 10 at the time of recording. Gonzalez had to portray so many emotions with his voice, as well as sing. But he had help in the form of his ancestors.

ANTHONY GONZALEZ: I love to sing, and especially these wonderful songs that Adrian Molina. They send incredible messages, and they’re just incredible lyrics that I love to sing. “Remember me” – it’s very sentimental. My grandfather passed away when I was six years old, and he was very special to me because he would always support me in my music career. And so yeah, every time I would come to sing it would remind me of him, and it would make me feel like he was there, and he was present with me.


And so the overarching themes of PIXAR COCO were there from the very beginning. Gonzalez gushed about the experience working with all these amazing voice actors, directors and producer. But especially Gael Garcia Bernal, voice of Hector. Bernal comes from on-screen Golden-Globe winning acting, known for his performances in Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN and MOZART IN THE JUNGLE. Voice acting was a departure for him, though he calls it an absolute “privilege to be here.”

GAEL BARCIA BERNAL: I’m proud and lucky to be part of this, with all this great team. Me being a little part of it, being able to put forth into the world a little fable about a mythology, and a tradition that I hold very dearly. Very proud, as well, that Mexico can give this to the world, and everyone in the world can adopt this tradition, this reflection on death.

Benjamin Bratt spoke to the difficulty of portraying a larger-than-life character, Ernesto de la Cruz, with just his voice. It is an “isolating experience to be in a booth, with only three other people in the room, and with Lee giving you the lines.” The directors encouraged Bratt to draw from Latino movie/music stars the equivelant of Frank Sinatra – Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete. And also someone quite close to him:

BENJAMIN BRATT: My own father, who’s now deceased, and who I lost touch with many years before he passed on – I lived with him in some very formative years, from 12 to about 17. And although he was quite a bit different than who Ernesto de la Cruz is, he was larger than life – 6’3”, massive frame, broad shoulders, and a booming voice, and the kind of person that no matter which room he walked into, he commanded attention. It was the kind of thing that I could draw on because it was familiar to me. So in that way, that was kind of like the lynch pin for me, with all this other stuff to create someone that enjoyed that adulation – not only enjoyed it, but they actually used it as his life’s blood.

Edward James Olmos voices a character that is the exact opposite of Ernesto de la Cruz in Disney•Pixar’s COCO. Old, lonely and forgotten. His part is small, so Olmos did not know the full story of the film when he watched a screening at Walt Disney Studios for the first time earlier that week. When sitting down for the screening, he looked around the theater and noticed “there were maybe two Latinos in the entire room. And you could tell by body language that [everyone in the room] was kind of tired, sitting there waiting and waiting.” But the film started and the atmosphere in the room began to change.

EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: So then the story started to evolve. And by the time it got to the end, I was in heaving sobs. This really became something really profound. And so what ended up happening is that I looked around immediately, because I was in the last chair, in the back. And I looked around, and these people were all crying – everybody. Everybody was like so intensely, just trying to hold onto it, and wiping their faces, and holding on, and watching the movie. I said, “Hell, this thing just hit everybody like a ton of bricks.” And I gotta tell ya – this thing – and I told Lee this yesterday, and I told Darla, too, I said, “You have no idea what you’ve done. You won’t know for like, 15 or 20 years.”

He is speaking to the importance and connection to family. COCO is ultimately about the deep connection we all have with our ancestors. Where they came from, what they did. Olmos sums up the film beautifully:

EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: People are gonna see this movie, are gonna come out really moved. Especially if you haven’t thought about your parents, or you haven’t thought about your loved ones, and you haven’t really gotten into your own family. You’ve been too busy living your life, that you haven’t gone back to even say thank you. When’s the last time you visited your great-great-grandmother’s burial site? So they’re gonna walk out, and they’re gonna feel an emptiness, and they’re gonna try to fill that emptiness with the knowledge of what they just got. So they’re going to investigate, and move forward. People are gonna say thank you to the Mexican culture for introducing them to a value that they did not know anything about. What the Day of the Dead really represents for many of us: a time to celebrate the memories and pass the stories on, and celebrate life at its fullest. So I am, as Chicharron, doing that one scene, it’s one of my proudest moments in the art form. Thank you guys.

COCO is the perfect film to watch with your family on Thanksgiving. Darla K. Anderson believes that families should come, enjoy the film and then think about where they came from, who their great-grandparents might be. Depending on your age, the film may hit you in a different way. Adrian Molina hopes that kids, especially will take in the messages of COCO.

ADRIAN MOLINA: Sometimes it takes you a long time to learn the value of the things that your parents have to teach you, or that your grandparents have to teach you. As you grow older, you really begin to understand and respect the sacrifices that are made for you, and you want to pay it back; you want to find a way to say thank you for all of the things that the previous generations have struggled to provide for you. And I think that’s a really good example to have at a young age. Sometimes it takes people much longer to realize those things. And I think Miguel, over the course of the night, grows dramatically, and hopefully, you know, children notice that, and parents notice that, and it allows for just talking about the things that we’re thankful for. And the fact that it comes out at Thanksgiving in the United States I think is a perfect opportunity for families to discuss that.

GAEL GARCIA BERNAL: This film opens up that discussion, and it is a beautiful reflection on death, and the celebration of life.

ALANNA UBACH: They painted such an exquisite portrait of the afterlife. And so you can only hope that – my son, who’s 12 weeks go – when he’s old enough to understand this movie, he can walk away saying, “Mama, I am not afraid of death. I’m not afraid of the afterlife.” What a beautiful world this would be if the afterlife was like this. Could you imagine? And also, that they really did pay such a respect to the one quality that Latin American families have, and that is the importance of familia.

I know I’m thinking of my ancestors when walking out of COCO. My grandmother, the seamstress; my great grandfather, a sheep farmer in Austria; what I would give to visit and learn from ancestors I’ve never met.

Disney•Pixar’s COCO opens Thanksgiving Day, 11/22/17 in theaters across the US. My advice: see the film first, then spend Thanksgiving dinner talking about all your ancestors and their stories with tu familia.

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About Richard & Sarah Woloski

Richard and Sarah Woloski are the co-hosts and creators of the Disney / Star Wars Podcast Skywalking Through Neverland. The husband and wife team strives to create a polished, positive and fun weekly show celebrating fandom. They also love writing for Adventures By Daddy. Find them @SkywalkingPod