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Over the last two decades, Pixar Animation Studios has been known for its groundbreaking advances in computer animation, as well as its filmmakers’ ability to create striking characters and worlds with which people instantly fall in love. This week, its newest film, Coco, breaks newer and similarly important ground, at least for itself if not the entire industry: Pixar is telling a story about non-white characters. Coco is not only set in Mexico, but is heavily steeped in the country’s cultural traditions, centering its story around Dia de los Muertos.
An effort to depict non-white characters shouldn’t seem so important in 2017, but Pixar has largely avoided casting non-white actors or creating non-white characters since the original Toy Story in 1995. This issue is more present now, as John Lasseter has taken a leave of absence amid claims of misconduct, and actress/writer Rashida Jones stating that she stepped away from writing Toy Story 4 due to Pixar representing “a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice.” In 2001’s Monsters, Inc., Jennifer Tilly (as monster receptionist Celia) functioned as the first person of color to get a major role in a Pixar film. 2004’s The Incredibles featured Samuel L. Jackson and Elizabeth Pena as the first non-white characters in a Pixar film (in part because the studio had relatively few human characters in its films). The necessary demand for cultural diversity and representation in filmmaking has made Pixar’s non-white casting more obvious in the last few years, culminating with this summer’s Cars 3, where new character Cruz Ramirez (voiced by Cristela Alonzo) speaks about her past, where she was given fewer opportunities to live out a dream of being a racecar.
Coco could have been akin to Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Pocahontas from the summer of 1995, a film meant as much as an apologia for past creative sins as it was designed to be a star-crossed interracial romance. Luckily, Coco feels less like a well-meaning attempt by white filmmakers to approximate a non-white culture than it does a respectful and exhilarating exploration of Mexican culture mixed with some of Pixar’s more familiar tropes. Considering how rarely the studio had indulged in creating non-white characters or worlds before now, it’s relieving to watch Coco, which feels as purely natural in its storytelling as Pixar’s more fantastical films. There’s no heavy lifting on the part of director Lee Unkrich, co-director Adrian Molina, or the other filmmakers to establish the film’s setting or cultural specificity.
This, arguably, is something that Pixar itself portended in one of its most fanciful, remarkable films to date, the 2009 best picture nominee Up. That film focuses on the grouchy Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), who manages to lift the house he shared with his late wife Ellie up via balloons so that he can travel to the Venezuelan land of Paradise Falls. Once in flight, he realizes he’s got an inadvertent stowaway in tow, the 8-year-old Russell (Jordan Nagai), a local Wilderness Explorer who tried to get a “helping the elderly” badge before Carl went on his journey. Russell is a child of divorce, clearly looking for a paternal figure in his life, and he’s also Asian American.
At no point in Up does the story call attention to Russell’s race; Carl is more surprised when he realizes that Russell no longer lives with both his mother and father. When the film concludes, Carl and Russell have bonded so much that the older man hands off the “badge” his wife gave him when they were children, passing the metaphorical torch and moving on from his past. Nagai’s performance is as energetic as that of Anthony Gonzalez, who plays Miguel, the lead in Coco; in both cases, the character’s race is a part of who they are, without being the entirety of why the character exists within the story. Coco is obviously more steeped in Mexican culture than Up was in Asian-American culture, but it too doesn’t try to make the race of its characters the focal point. The characters in Coco are Mexican, because that’s just how the story is going to unfold. Equally encouraging is that all but one of the actors credited in the film are of Latin American descent (the sole exception is Pixar’s so-called lucky charm John Ratzenberger, in a very brief role).
Coco, in its depiction of the Land of the Dead where Miguel travels, is also at its liveliest and visually most vibrant when it depicts the undead. The design of the surprisingly limber skeletons with whom Miguel interacts, the lushly colorful world they occupy, and even the music they play affords the propulsively paced film a sense of place as unique as the underwater world in Finding Nemo or the dystopic future in WALL-E. Coco is not Pixar’s best film — though it is its best since 2015’s Inside Out — but its depiction of Mexican culture is surprisingly naturalistic, respectful, and dynamic, coming from a studio that’s spent too many years avoiding cultural specificity in its many great films.
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