November 20, 2018

Lee Unkrich: ‘Coco’ Creator is the Frontrunner for Best Animated Feature

ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 14: Director Lee Unkrich of COCO took part today in the Walt Disney Studios animation presentation at Disney's D23 EXPO 2017 in Anaheim, Calif. COCO will be released in U.S. theaters on November 22, 2017. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

Seven years ago, Lee Unkrich won his first Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for “Toy Story 3,” his debut directorial effort for Pixar. He’s favored to win in the category this year for the studio’s “Coco,” a celebration of family and Mexican culture that has grossed over $700 million at the worldwide box office.

“There’s something special about that first time that was mind-blowing. It was like an out of body experience,” Unkrich said of his first Oscar win. “I don’t know that I’ll have the same experience again, but it doesn’t make it any less special.”

Set during the Dia De Muertos festival honoring the dead, “Coco” “is not about death or grieving or loss, though death is certainly part of the story,” Unkrich said. “It’s about family and remembrance and the obligation that we have to pass the stories of loved ones along, and that’s a universal idea. No matter what culture or religion you’re in or even if you’re not religious at all, these are basic human notions.”

Over the course of the six years it took to make the film, Unkrich and his team made many trips to Mexico to take photos, experience Dia De Muertos, and spend time with families in rural parts of the country. “It gave us a specificity that we wouldn’t have dreamed up on our own in a studio in Northern California,” he said.

“’Coco’ is about family and remembrance and the obligation that we have to pass the stories of loved ones along. These are basic human notions.”

Pixar hired expert advisors for the first time. “We had a great responsibility to be as authentic and respectful as possible. Every single decision we made was looking through that lens of cultural appropriateness and respect,” Unkrich said, noting that “Coco” is the top-grossing film of all time in Mexico. “That tells us we did it right.”

Unkrich, 50, a graduate of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, worked in television editing before beginning his career at Pixar in 1994. He worked as an editor on “Toy Story” and “A Bug’s Life” and co-director on “Monsters Inc.,” Finding Nemo,” and “Toy Story 2.”

“Animation wasn’t my background, but I found that I like working slowly and meticulously and thoughtfully to create a story,” he said. “I get the same level of satisfaction that I do from live action if not more. And I love being able to make movies without being surrounded by the film industry, like I was in L.A.”

A movie-loving kid from Chagrin Falls, Oh., a suburb of Cleveland, Unkrich acted in plays and was interested in art and photography, and he felt that filmmaking would combine his interests. He grew up in a Reform Jewish home, raised by an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and a German-Catholic father who became interested in Judaism as a young man and officially converted when Unkrich was eight years old.

“My family was very active in our temple, where I had my bar mitzvah. My father was on the board and my mother was in the sisterhood. She actually ran the services in the summertime,” Unkrich said. “Even though we weren’t a particularly observant household—we didn’t keep kosher—Judaism was a big part of my childhood. I was one of the few Jews in my school. But I went to a Jewish summer camp starting at age 10 and went back every summer until I was in college. My best friends in life are my friends from camp. And I met my wife in the last summer I was there.”

Unkrich and his wife, Laura, live in Marin County and have three children, Hannah, 20, Alice, 18, and Max, 13. He maintains a strong connection to Judaism. “I’m not super-observant,” he said. “But the community has always been very important to me and to my wife, and it’s important that our kids are part of that community.”

As for his next project, it’s to be determined. “I’m still busy with ‘Coco.’ It hasn’t opened everywhere around the world,” he said, not eager to jump into something new. “First, I want to take a long vacation.”

Pixar and the Zohar

If you’ve seen the trailer or any advertisements for “Coco,” you already know that it’s Pixar’s most Mexican film yet. What you don’t see in the trailer is that Coco is also Pixar’s most Jewish film. You probably would not see that by watching the movie, either, but it’s all I saw.

“Coco” tells the story of Miguel Rivera, a Mexican boy who travels on Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) to the Land of the Dead, where he must reconnect with his deceased ancestors to return to the Land of the Living. “Coco” fits neatly in the pantheon of familiar Pixar stories and the film is bursting with wholesome values.

The Jewish idea that aveira goreret aveira — once we step onto a dark path of sin, it can lead to an endless cycle of darkness — is prominent in “Coco.” The filmmakers sprinkle simple truths and lessons throughout: Fame is not correlated with talent or ability; our role models should be the people in our lives who are good, not those who appear to be most successful; we should follow our dreams but not hurt others in the process. Seeing Hollywood teaching good values is worth the price of admission.

On a deeper level, “Coco” is much more. It’s the stuff of primordial storytelling. Many stories dazzle us with mind-bending plot twists and vibrant original characters. “Coco” has neither. The story is not particularly remarkable and the characters are not unique.

“Coco” is a different kind of story — it is a fable. Specifically, it is the kind of fable that has been the bedrock of religious storytelling for thousands of years. “Coco” is a biblical story with new people and modern dilemmas.

Bible stories are not known for their plot twists, but they are brilliant vehicles for life lessons. The purpose of a Bible story is not to entertain — it is to enlighten. “Coco” is certainly entertaining and its agile lesson-teaching impresses. But its true brilliance is the way it enlightens the audience.

Religious stories, loaded with religious meaning and morality, serve a social function, as well. They connect people through ritual and common beliefs. They form a moral fiber that binds religious people to their communities while also answering the “big questions” of life. They connect and enlighten people. This is how religion builds society through storytelling. Without answers to “big questions” and meaning to pull everything together, people don’t build societies.

“Coco” is Hollywood’s most financially successful attempt to tell a universal story with lessons addressing one life’s “biggest” questions: What happens after we die?

“Coco” is a spectacular sermon on the afterlife. Consider this: Pixar spent $200 million to respectfully and faithfully teach the world about Día de los Muertos — authentically. There’s a lot of explaining in the movie as the theology and traditions of Día de los Muertos are doled out in bite-sized pieces.

“Coco” is a spectacular sermon on the afterlife.

The religious moviegoer expects Hollywood to get religion wrong and to subvert whatever it manages to get right. Incredibly, “Coco” does the opposite. It gets Día de los Muertos right. In a nutshell, on Día de los Muertos, the dead visit with the living. Only when we celebrate the dead will their memories live on, enabling them to visit and celebrate along with the living.

This is a powerful teaching. Another movie of biblical proportions, “Interstellar” (2014), also conveyed this idea. Coop, its protagonist, tells his daughter, “We [parents] are the memories of our children.” We find a similar idea in Jewish mysticism. The Zohar says that on days of great celebration, when the living inevitably remember the dead, the souls of the dead leave their heavenly domain and join in the celebration with the living.

This is the kind of “big idea” that traditionally was exclusively religion’s domain. “Coco” is a film doing what religion used to do. It is building culture and meaning. It is building society. Most of all, it is not replacing traditional religious stories with something new, but faithfully retelling the old in a modern way.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Pixar’s “Coco” exceeds expectations

The trailers for Pixar’s newest animated film “Coco” aren’t particularly captivating.  At first glance, the story seems confusing and vaguely reminiscent of last year’s motion-capture feature “Kubo and the Two Strings”.

As it turns out, trailers can be misleading and skipping “Coco” would be the biggest mistake of the year.  Miguel’s (Anthony Gonzalez) search for his father through the land of the dead is a visual masterpiece.  The production design is rich with detail and the character design is fabulous. Whoever first imagined skeletons could embody a range of emotions as sympathetic characters had tremendous foresight.  “Coco” is a prime example of Pixar at its finest.

Aside from the look of the movie, it’s the themes and story that push it over the top in the best possible way.  “Coco” explores what it is to follow your dreams, respect your family and that seeing is not always believing.  Similar elements exist here as in the other Pixar success stories as well; death and sacrifice are significant and, as was so beautifully expressed in 2015’s “Inside Out”, while emotions may guide us, they shouldn’t define us.

The movie also stars the voice talents of Gael Garcia Bernal and Benjamin Bratt.

For more about “Coco” and how the color design influences the film, take a look below:

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All film photos are courtesy of Walt Disney Studios / Pixar.