Since the first Toy Story revolutionized the animation game in 1995, Pixar has successfully tackled such diverse genres as superhero adventures (The Incredibles), space operas (Wall-E), body horror (Inside Out), and postapocalyptic yarns on a human-free earth (the Cars series). But there remains one cinematic realm that the studio has yet to conquer: musicals. According to Pixar veteran Lee Unkrich, that very nearly changed with Coco, the 2017 blockbuster he co-directed with Adrian Molina. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, the Toy Story 3 director revealed that at one point in its lengthy development process, Coco was going to be Pixar’s first-ever full-on musical. Unkrich was so serious about shattering that particular barrier he hired the powerhouse Frozen songwriting duo of Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez to pen a half dozen original tunes, several of which made it as far as the storyboard stage. “We were fully on the path to doing a musical for at least a year, if not more,” he remembers, “Finally, we hit a point where it felt like the movie was trying to be something different from what we were making.”
Rather than bury the evidence of an alternate version of Coco in the Pixar Vault, the film arrives on Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD on Feb. 27 with those excised songs included among the bonus features. Yahoo Entertainment has an exclusive peek at one of the missing musical numbers, a family sing-along called “Way of the Riveras,” which would have appeared early on in the story. (Watch the clip above.) As in the cut we saw in theaters, the musical version of Coco followed aspiring musician Miguel — then called Marco — as he ventures into the Land of the Dead on Día de los Muertos in pursuit of iconic singer Ernesto de la Cruz. Before he crosses over, his family insists that he give up a music career in favor of continuing the family’s shoemaking trade, an argument they make through song. “You also get free footwear, which is a bonus,” the clan sings, while the kid looks on skeptically.
From the beginning, Unkrich knew that there was something incongruous about making a musical in which the central family lives by a strict “no music” rule. “We knew it was weird and challenging at the time, but we were trying to embrace the oddness of it all,” he admits. With that in mind, the team forged ahead in sketching out storyboards for big production numbers that would accompany Lopez-penned tunes like “Día de los Muertos,” the song that provided the original opening for Coco. “It felt like a traditional Disney musical number, and then it was revealed that you were watching a stage show at a Mexico City dinner theater,” Unkrich explains. “The intention was to educate the audience about the holiday, and set the tone for the movie ahead. Ultimately, we found it was taking too long in the storytelling before we met Miguel and got into his story.”
After spending a year trying to steer Coco around the various narrative roadblocks that kept cropping up, Unkrich and Molina concluded that a musical version of the film simply wasn’t going to fly and refashioned it as a movie with music as opposed to a full-blown musical, taking their inspiration from an unlikely source. “I ended up looking to the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? as a model for how to make a film where music is a vital part of the storytelling, and there are lots of performances in the course of the movie.” And, as in that folk-music-infused favorite, the directors wanted to explore a wide variety of musical sounds and traditions from the region where the action unfolds. “I wanted to embrace the full landscape of Mexican music; I felt we were limiting ourselves by just sticking to the songs we had been writing for the movie. We’re excited to include them on the Blu-ray — they are fun songs and give people a glimpse of all the blind alleys we inevitably go down in the course of developing a story.”
Even though the majority of the Lopez’s work hit the cutting room floor when the musical version was shelved, Unkrich points out that one of their songs survived all the way to the final cut. The Oscar-nominated ballad “Remember Me” was the first musical number they wrote and immediately became the emotional foundation on which the film is built. “Even though the story went through all kinds of changes along the way, ‘Remember Me’ remained the bedrock,” Unkrich says. “It always ended with Marco back home singing to Mama Coco. That’s a testament to our great songwriters. I don’t think I gave them a single note.”
Coco is available on Digital and Movies Anywhere on Tuesday and on Blu-ray, DVD, and 4K Ultra HD on Feb. 27.
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