On Tuesday, John Lasseter, one of Pixar's founders and its Chief Creative Officer, announced that he is taking a formal leave of absence from the company after "missteps" that made employees feel “disrespected or uncomfortable.” The news was only made more troubling when actress Rashida Jones released a statement clarifying that she did not back out of Toy Story 4 because of an incident with Lasseter, but rather, creative differences, because Pixar is "a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice."
It is incredibly disheartening that even the world of children's movies has now been touched by Hollywood's misconduct scandals. And especially sad that it happened the night before the release of Pixar's latest movie, Coco, one of the animation studio's richest offerings in recent years. The way this news impacts my feelings on the film is complicated. I keep asking myself the recurring question that's come up for so many of us lately: At what point, exactly, can you separate the art from the people who make it? In this case, Lasseter wasn't a writer on the film, or a director, or animator, or cast or crew member. But he's still the Chief Creative Officer of Pixar. He was one of the executives who greenlit the project. He had to have had input in the movie's direction — and, obviously, he's been championing the work everywhere. He also stands to profit from its success.
The situation is even more frustrating because this is the first movie with an all-Latino voice cast — ever. This could have been an upbeat moment in film and Latino history, but now it will be forever marred by yet another tinseltown scandal. And even Coco's cultural significance is tainted after Jones' comments about the company's attitude toward women and people of color. It's difficult to reconcile how a company that potentially has internal issues with racism and sexism can put out a film that celebrates Mexican traditions with good intentions. All of this is particularly conflicting for me, as a Latina who always wants to support Latino projects since we rarely see them in the mainstream — and also, to ensure we get more of them.
Complicating things even more is the fact that this movie is a treasure. I was skeptical going in to a screening even a few weeks before the Lasseter revelations, simply because I wasn't impressed by the trailer and I worried that an animated movie set in Mexico and centered on Dia de Los Muertos could exoticize or appropriate Latino culture. I walked out obsessed. I was undeniably head-over-heels for Coco, dazzled by the film's groundbreaking animation and enamored with its surprisingly poignant storyline. And yes, I was also wiping away a few tears.
Coco follows some of Pixar's tried-and-true but beloved tropes: A kid with a dream who feels outcast by their family goes against the grain in order to find themselves (hello Ratatouille), and ventures on a sweeping, adventure-filled journey (think both Finding Nemo and Finding Dory) that ends with one major, emotional life lesson (looking at you, Up). But there are a few elements that set Coco apart from Pixar's predecessors.
The first thing that struck me about this movie was the stunning visuals. Miguel is an aspiring musician in a family that has forbidden music after their long-ago patriarch — his great-great grandfather — abandoned Miguel's great-great grandmother and children to pursue a music career and become an international superstar. But Miguel can’t get enough of both music and the legend of his relative and will stop at nothing to pursue his dreams of following in his footsteps. So much so, in fact, that through a series of Pixar-typical events, the little boy ends up falling into a magical loophole that allows him to travel into the afterlife on Dia de Los Muertos and meet his ancestors.
A movie about a boy wandering into a world full of dead people might not sound like the most kid-friendly idea. But in Coco, the Land of the Dead is like Disney World meets Times Square, sprinkled with sparkly fairy dust and set to a danceable, guitar-backed soundtrack. It's entrancing, as are the images of the skeletons that portray Miguel's long-gone family; sure, they don't have skin and bones and are long-ago dead, but round eyes, heart-shaped noses and sugar skull face paintings make them equally lovable and adorable. There's even a hilarious nod to Frida Kahlo, who makes a cameo in the land of the non-living complete with her signature pet monkey and some over-the-top narcissism.
And the living, by the way, are just as incredible to behold: The wrinkles on the face of Miguel's great-grandmother were so realistically crinkled, you want to reach out and touch them. There was a moment mid-way through the movie where I caught myself with my jaw dropped and eyes wide, mesmerized by the glittering animations that might even eclipse those of Pixar's last game-changer, Inside Out. I'd love to give the animators here the sole credit for their brilliant movie magic. But now I have to wonder if it's possible to marvel at this art without thinking about the hand that Lasseter might have played in it all.
Still, what really blew me away about Coco is the historic but long-overdue feat of being the first-ever movie with an all-Latino voice cast. It paid off: The vocals by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez as Miguel make the entire tale feel more authentic, and characters brought to life by the likes of Benjamin Bratt, Jaime Camil, Alanna Ubach, and Gael Garcia Bernal make the setting feel inclusive rather than exclusive, as movies about non-American cultures often can. I'm not Mexican, but as a Puerto Rican Latina, it made me proud to see some representation for my sister culture on a big screen, in a movie that I know will influence millions of viewers of all ages worldwide. I saw my own family in the small details, from the abuela that throws her chancleta at her grandchild (that's my grandmother all the way!) to the natural mixes of Spanglish throughout.
In addition to Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina (who is Mexican) co-directed Coco, helping to prove that a thoughtful, accurate cultural story can only be achieved with the the inclusion of, you know, the actual culture. I can't help but think about how proud young Anthony Gonzalez must be as the first lead-Latino voice in a Pixar movie, and how necessary it is for children to see images like this on the big screen. Yet this is hard to reconcile with Jones' comments about the environment being less than welcoming to those who are "other." Sigh.
There are also Jones' comments about Pixar's creative problems with women to grapple with — which are interesting when juxtaposed with this film's plot twist. While we set out to believe that Miguel is the center of Coco, we learn toward the end that the heart of this story is really about his great grandmother, Coco, hence the name. Without revealing too much of the plot (which is, admittedly, a bit complicated), perhaps the most important part of the narrative is way that his great-grandmother Coco became not just a matriarch, but the backbone of this family. It's a role women don't often get enough credit for in Latino culture, so seeing a strong woman receive her due was both novel for Pixar and refreshing in general. Perhaps it's a sign of progress on both accounts.
All of the behind-the-scenes politics aside, it was the emphasis on familia that was my favorite part of Coco. One would assume the sappy Disney lesson here is aimed at a much younger viewer, but at 30 years old, I found myself thinking about the movie's messages long after I left the theater. There is one moment specifically that stuck with me: In this fictional depiction of Dia de Los Muertos, a person who has passed away only disappears completely from the land of the dead when no living person has a photo of them on their ofrenda, or altar. Seeing the process of being forgotten happen to one character — set to sentimental Disney music and transfixing animation — got me very emotional. After all, how often do any of us take a moment to reflect on the legacies of our ancestors and make sure that they are never forgotten? Wouldn't we all want our own stories to be passed on, long after we've left this world? It's a children's movie, but this here grown-up was moved in ways she could have never imagined.
From a strictly reviewing-standpoint, Coco isn't perfect, of course. The storyline at the beginning drags at times, and I wanted a lot more from the soundtrack of the first-ever Latino-voiced Pixar movie. The main song, "Remember Me," is sweet, but definitely no "Let It Go" or "How Far I'll Go." And the news about Lasseter, and Jones' revelation about the culture at Pixar, also bring in some dark clouds over this sunny feature. I'll leave the decision to you viewers about whether or not you choose to decide to support Coco — and therefore, Pixar — by going to see this movie. I'm grateful that I personally didn't have to decide. What I can tell you for sure is that Coco is an aesthetically breathtaking, culturally fresh, and heartwarming treat that will likely elicit a few tears with its ending. It has the potential to offer viewers young and old some memorable lessons — and remind you appreciate your time with family this holiday season. It's just a shame that thanks to the actions of some, this Pixar movie might not feel completely lighthearted.
Coco is in theaters everywhere November 22.
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