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'Coco' co-director is amazed you haven't noticed this 'Shining' homage yet

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Miguel eyes his ticket back to the land of the living in Coco. (Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

Most superfans of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic The Shining are content to express their love for the movie via elaborate online conspiracy theories. Lee Unkrich, on the other hand, gets to funnel his passion into his profession. The veteran Pixar filmmaker and well-documented Shining lover has knowingly slipped references to Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel into each of the animated blockbusters he’s directed, including 2010’s Toy Story 3 and 2017’s Coco, the odds-on favorite to bring the studio its ninth Oscar for Best Animated Feature at this weekend’s Academy Awards ceremony. But these homages aren’t immediately obvious. Unkrich — who also maintains The Overlook Hotel, a site devoted to Shining ephemera — prides himself on embedding Easter eggs that only the most eagle-eyed viewers will catch.

So in the interest of aiding ordinary mortals who haven’t pored over every frame of Kubrick’s movie multiple times, Yahoo Entertainment asked Unkrich to reveal one of Coco‘s Shining shoutouts timed to the Pixar flick’s Feb. 27 arrival on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray. “I’ll tell you one that nobody has spotted yet, oddly,” the director says, advising viewers at home to chapter-skip to the scene midway through the film when our young hero, Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), pays a visit to Frida Kahlo‘s bustling art studio in the Land of the Dead. The boy and his trusty canine companion, Dante, have been guided there by his skeleton guide, Héctor (Gael García Bernal), in the hopes of finding a way into the annual party hosted by the man he believes to be his long-dead ancestor, renowned crooner Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). As Dante starts romping about Kahlo’s workspace, Miguel chases after him, passing by a number of the artist’s paintings in the process. And one of those paintings features a pair of very familiar twins. (See our freeze-frame shot below: The picture is in the background, directly behind Miguel’s head.)

Lee Unkrich buried a tribute to the twin girls from The Shining in the background of this frame from Coco. (Photo: Pixar)
A closer look at ‘The Shining’ twins in ‘Coco’ (Photo: Pixar)

“That’s a Día de los Muertos-inspired version of the twin girls from The Shining,” Unkrich confirms. “I don’t know why no one has caught it yet, because I didn’t think it was the difficult one in the movie! I always try to do these in a way that’s pretty obscure.” In fact, some of the movie’s Kubrickian flourishes were too obscure even for him. In a separate conversation with Yahoo Entertainment, Coco producer Darla K. Anderson reveals that members of the animation crew responsible for creating the film’s richly detailed sets slipped several Shining references past their boss. “During the review time, they’d be like, ‘What do you see onscreen?'” she remembers, laughing. For his part, Unkrich owns up to missing some of those Easter eggs but declines to make it any easier for audiences to catch them all. “I’m just going to give you the one for today,” he says.

Unkrich’s inspiration for ‘The Shining’ cameo in ‘Coco’ (Photo: Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection)

Thankfully, Unkrich and Anderson were open to sharing some of the other secrets from Coco‘s six-year journey to the big screen. Here are three behind-the-scenes stories that shed an illuminating light on how Pixar built yet another animated hit and likely Oscar winner.

Battle of the sexes
Hard as it may be to believe, there’s a reality in which Coco almost became Pixar’s first-ever musical. And that version of the film could also have joined Brave and Inside Out as one of the relatively few Pixar productions built around a female lead. “Early on, we talked about Miguel being a girl,” Anderson reveals. “But we felt that story would be all about her not being able to be a mariachi because she was a girl, as opposed to the struggle of being an artist in a family that didn’t believe in expressing themselves through song. We felt that story had more depth to it, so that’s what we gravitated towards.” Still, Anderson — who has been one of the leading female creative forces at Pixar for two decades and counting — says that the studio is devoted to nurturing a new generation of heroines in front of and behind the camera. “I am super-excited that The Incredibles 2 has a lot of cool, strong women characters,” she says of Brad Bird’s highly anticipated sequel. “We also have some really cool people coming up through the ranks right now that we’ve been mentoring for years. Our films take a long time to make, so I think you’ll soon start to see some of those seeds we’ve planted come to fruition — I know you will.”

Famous faces in new places
Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, Unkrich remembers mainlining vintage Looney Tunes cartoons and occasionally seeing Bugs and/or Daffy cross paths with celebrities whom he didn’t recognize, but his elders sure did. “They’d have these caricatures of movie stars from the ’40s and ’50s, like Edward G. Robinson,” he says. “As a kid, I didn’t know who any of them were, but I did know that they must have been famous at one point. I thought it would be fun to do the same thing with Coco.” That’s why he and co-director Adrian Molina populated the Land of the Dead with cameos from Mexican celebrities who didn’t necessarily carry the timeless (and global) name recognition of Frida Kahlo. “There’s a famous Mexican wrestler named El Santo, an actress named María Félix, and a comedian named Cantinflas, who was the Mexican Charlie Chaplin. I love that most people don’t notice them, but audiences in Mexico get very excited,” he says.

This simple scene of Miguel watching Ernesto de la Cruz perform is one of producer Darla Anderson’s favorite moments in Coco. (Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

‘Poco’ bueno
While Coco went through numerous narrative permutations during its evolution into the film you saw in theaters, Unkrich said that one scene never changed from version to version: the heart-wrenching climactic moment when Miguel sings the movie’s Oscar-nominated anthem, “Remember Me,” to his great-great-grandmother. Anderson singles out Miguel and Héctor’s performance of the rambunctious “Poco Loco” as another sequence that survived multiple drafts. “We always had a talent show [in the film], and ‘Poco Loco’ was part of that,” she says. Interestingly, one of her favorite scenes in the film happened relatively late in production — the moment when Miguel watches scratchy black-and-white VHS tapes of Ernesto’s greatest performances. “It’s a relatively simple scene, but it was hard to pull together to make it seem so simple. The first time that I saw it, tears ran down my face because you could see and feel Miguel’s passion for music. We always try to show our characters’ intentions rather than tell them through discourse. That’s one of the most beautiful scenes in the film for me, because you feel the music with Miguel.”

Coco is available now on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray.

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