Like most dogs, Dante likes bones — but because he lives in the supernatural fantasy world of Pixar’s Coco (in theaters Nov. 22), those bones don’t always like him back. The endearingly goofy Xolo, aka Mexican hairless dog, is the star of Dante’s Lunch — A Short Tail, the new Pixar short premiering exclusively on Yahoo Movies. (Watch it above.) The two-minute film was created early in the animation process by Coco director Lee Unkrich and his team so that they could get a better sense of their four-legged supporting star. “We just were really happy with how it came out and thought we would share it with the world as a little appetizer until the movie comes out,” Unkrich tells Yahoo Movies.
From what Unkrich says, Dante is one of many unique and compelling characters in Coco, Pixar’s fantasy film about a young Mexican boy named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) who goes on an extraordinary journey into the land of the dead. Determined to follow his passion for music, in spite of his family having forbidden it, Miguel sets out on a quest to meet his deceased musician idol, Ernesto De La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Along the way, Miguel encounters his own ancestors and begins to understand where he came from and who he is meant to be. The film’s story was inspired by Dìa de Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead, when the spirits of the dead are said to return to Earth for one night to celebrate with loved ones.
“I liken it to a big yearly family reunion that kind of spans the gap between the living and the dead, and there’s something really beautiful about that notion of not having to say goodbye to anyone and knowing that they’re going to be back every year,” says Unkrich, who devoted extensive time to learning about the holiday and its art and traditions. During that research process, “I fell in love with the people — I fell in love with this beautiful celebration and how it’s celebrated here in the United States and down in Mexico,” he says. “We ended up embracing the celebration a thousand percent in the kind of story that we told. I didn’t want to feel like we were just kind of grafting any old story into that world, so we’ve crafted a story that really could only take place during Dìa de Muertos.”
Another part of that research process was, believe it or not, playing with dogs. During a trip to Mexico, the Pixar creators took a shine to the national dog, the Xolo (short for Xoloitzcuintli) — an ancient breed that, according to Unkrich, “figures very prominently in Aztec legends about the afterlife. It was said that in order to make the journey through the afterlife, you needed to have one of these Xolo dogs with you.” While spending time with the dogs, the animators learned that they’re genetically prone to lose some of their teeth, and once that happens, their tongues hang out of the sides of their mouths (as is evident in Dante’s Lunch.) “We thought we would kind of embrace that and make it part of Dante’s character,” Unkrich says. “So his tongue is almost its own character, separate from him.”
The Pixar development and production process is long, and Unkrich has been working on Coco for almost six years and counting. His last film as director was 2010’s Toy Story 3, known for its near universal acclaim (it has a 99 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and its ability to reduce nearly any adult to tears. So can we expect Coco to bring similar waterworks?
“Well, we’re still making it, so it remains to be seen!” Unkrich says with a laugh. “But my favorite movies are movies that give you a full range of experiences and feelings as you watch them. I love movies that are funny and scary and truly emotional all in one film, and I don’t feel like I see movies like that a lot. [Coco] is funny, it’s scary at times, and it’s definitely emotional.”
It’s also shrouded in mystery — at least, for now. So far, all audiences have seen of Coco besides Dante’s Lunch are a striking teaser trailer (watch below) and some concept art of the Coco character (who is Miguel’s great-grandmother). Unkrich says he looks forward to showing off more of the film’s stunning visuals (“Coco is shaping up to be one of the most beautiful films we’ve made,” he says), as well as the “amazing, star-worthy” voice performance of 12-year-old Gonzalez, who also sings in the film. And “hopefully not too long from now,” he says, we’ll get a first look at Hector, the character voiced by Gael García Bernal (described in the official synopsis as a “charming trickster”). Even after the characters are revealed, though, Unkrich promises that Coco has many surprises in store.
“I’ve been working on this film almost six years now, and the twists and turns of the story are old hat to me, because I’ve been immersed in it for so long,” he admits,” but we still do show work-in-progress screenings to different people and groups, and they continue to be surprised by some of the twists that the story takes. And so I feel pretty confident that we’ll at least surprise some of the audience.”
Watch the teaser trailer for Pixar’s Coco:
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