In many ways, “Coco” is classic Pixar: a gorgeously detailed, candy-colored family adventure about a young dreamer whose endearingly quixotic journey through an unfamiliar landscape culminates in an emotional catharsis both rich and righteous. But there’s one key element of the film, No. 19 from the animation juggernaut, that sets it apart from — and in some senses elevates it above — every other entry in the studio’s oeuvre: a (long-overdue) commitment to cultural authenticity.
While “Brave” beautifully evoked the twilit mysticism of the Scottish Highlands, and “Ratatouille” cleverly imparted the romantic idealism of Paris, “Coco” — about a young, aspiring musician who enters the Land of the Dead in hopes of solving the mystery of his family’s aversion to all things musical — is Pixar’s first feature film to interpret Mexican culture (and, for that matter, any non-white culture) through its imaginative visual lens. Doing so accurately, says lead story artist Dean Kelly, originally of Chelmsford, has been one of the most thrilling challenges — and profound honors — of his career at the studio thus far.
“On the surface, research was everything we did every day,” recalls Kelly, who spoke to the Globe while in Boston for a series of college presentations about his involvement with the film. “[W]e had a stack of books, a lot of old Mexican films that we watched, and we started to see what they were pulling out of their own culture. Then it was like, ‘We’ve just got to go there.’ ”
And so Kelly — alongside director Lee Unkrich, co-director/co-writer Adrian Molina, and a team of Pixar employees — journeyed to the Mexican city of Oaxaca hoping to gain firsthand knowledge of and appreciation for the area that could lend “Coco” the level of cultural specificity warranted for a film set against the backdrop of Día de los Muertos.
“You saw the papel picados — these intricate paper cutouts — you saw the bright colors, the aprons that usually the matriarchs wore,” recalls Kelly. “[And on the holiday] you see locals playing music in cemeteries, decorating the graves with marigold skull crowns, creating pieces of art out of the petals. Everything is lit by candlelight. You hear the trumpets, you hear the guitars, you hear accordions, you hear people singing.”
In the end, the greatest difficulty the fim’s army of artists and animators faced was staying on budget while re-creating the resplendently colorful cultures of Oaxaca (which served as the main inspiration for Santa Cecilia, the film’s Land of the Living) and Guadalajara (which inspired the Land of the Dead).
“We wanted to really push the scale of the Land of the Dead and the verticality of the visuals, of how everything was built up over the years, the history of that world,” remembers Kelly. “But there are wins and losses, and you have to allow certain things to be taken out.”
In visualizing the Land of the Dead, Kelly worked closely on scenes set within a Grand Central Station-esque terminal and a comparably industrial Department of Family Reunions. His vision of sequences set within both earned particular praise from his collaborators.
“Dean took initial ideas for these scenes, which we’d done some rough concept art on, and expanded them in an incredibly beautiful way,” recalls production designer Harley Jessup, speaking by phone from Pixar’s Emeryville, Calif., headquarters. “He has a sense of poetry in what he’s drawing that makes it easy to interpret.”
For Kelly, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate who worked for Nickelodeon and “The Simpsons” before relocating to Oakland, Calif., in 2009 to join Pixar as a storyboard artist for “Monsters University” (2013), “Coco” marked a significant change of both pace and style. Whereas his previous project mandated visits to American college campuses and dormitories, this one demanded complete immersion in a culture distinct from his own.
“With ‘Monsters,’ it’s college, it’s fun, and the only line you ride is that of what’s inappropriate for kids, and you try to be smart that way,” he says. “But with this, these were real people, dealing with loss, and a holiday that’s celebrated.”
Aiming to understand Oaxaca enough to depict it on a photorealistic level, Kelly dedicated years of his life to capturing Mexican culture, an experience he calls one of the richest in his career.
“With [“Coco’s” main setting of] Santa Cecelia being based off Oaxaca, there was truthfulness to it,” he says. “There was more of grounded reality in it, and we took several research trips down to Oaxaca, and I took thousands of photos. It was almost like I was a location scout. And even in Mexico I was like, ‘Look at this dirt road. It’s beautiful. Look at this weathered door.’ I could use that as backdrop for whatever scene I was working on. It was real-world. It was something you can’t Google.”
Accurately representing Mexican culture on screen took more than just exhaustively researching it, notes Kelly while expressing gratitude for the studio’s team of cultural consultants, which included prominent Latinx political figures and artists. In addition to collaborating on the story, script, and art design, consultants were invited to multiple in-progress screenings in order to gauge where “Coco” was hitting its mark, or missing it.
Discussing the film on the eve of its release has been an interesting mental shift for Kelly, who jumped to working on “The Incredibles 2” last year.
“My head is now in superhero mode,” says Kelly, laughing. “But right now, talking to you, I’m jumping from that fantastical world back to Oaxaca.”
Still, Kelly doesn’t mind the mental gymnastics, even a little. Eight years since he first began working at Pixar, housed in Emeryville, Kelly says he’s still as thrilled by the work as he was on day one.
“I can’t even tell you that I get to get up to draw every day,” he says. “I feel like every step has been moving forward; eventually, I want to direct. And this place is the best learning ground. It really is a dream job.”
As the interview wraps up, he remarks that, now a long way from Chelmsford, he still gets a kick out of talking to his hometown paper. “I can’t imagine doing anything else — unless it was playing catch with Tom Brady.”Isaac Feldberg can be reached at email@example.com.