Coco (2017)

Whenever reviewing modern CG-animated kids’ movies, I try to make a point of announcing up front that they’re never really my thing, Pixar properties included. I admit this as a way of softening, if not invalidating my opinion on the topic at hand (right before I say something unpopular). For instance, I didn’t even have the energy to properly review Moana, a movie seemingly everyone loves but I had no business watching, so I just wrote an article detailing the few isolated things I appreciated about it instead. My status as a Pixar heretic should probably exclude me from reviewing the Día de los Muertos adventure epic Coco as well, but I was attracted to the film by its visual allure and overwhelming critical praise anyway. Oddly, my general disappointment with Coco wasn’t tied to its surface level Pixar-ness, though. I was impressed with the film as a vibrantly colorful visual piece, something I don’t typically experience with CG animation. It was also refreshing to see Pixar move past its usual “What if toys/cars/feelings/dinosaurs could talk?” creative rut to walk kids through Mexican cultural immersion and healthy attitudes about the inevitability of death. What bothered me about the film was more to do with how it functions as a message piece, a morality tale with a concrete lesson for kids to learn: that loyalty to your family is more important than your own mental or emotional health. Fuck that.

Miguel is a young Mexican boy who dreams of one day becoming a musician, despite his family’s ancestral ban on all music in his household. Over the course of the film, Miguel goes on a transdimensional journey to the ghost-populated Land of the Dead, thanks to the bridge between worlds offered by annual Día de los Muertos rituals, to learn that his “selfish” dream of pursuing art is destructive to the values of community & tradition that guide his life. This “Nothing is more important that Family” life lesson is softened when his elders & ancestors eventually buckle to accept how much music means to him, but that change of heart only occurs once they personally see value in the art themselves. If you apply that same dynamic to something that doesn’t universally affect people the way music does (for instance, if Miguel had discovered a sexual orientation or gender identity they didn’t approve of), the message is much more clearly toxic. “The only family in Mexico who doesn’t love music” is cruelly dismissive, even outright abusive to Miguel, driving him to hide his passion in cramped attic spaces & smashing his only guitar in front of him before he even gets to fully explain himself. Teaching kids to feel obligated to put up with that kind of abuse merely because of biological bonds just in case your bullies might one day changer their minds is a grotesque life lesson. There’s nothing wrong with the message that community & family are more important than the individual self, especially since in this case the lesson is embedded in the culture depicted, but you should also leave it open for kids to know that their community is optional and cruelty isn’t okay just because you’re related to your abusers.

My unwillingness to forgive Miguel’s elders & long-dead ancestors aside, I did appreciate the way his adventures in The Land of the Dead offered a colorful, but also horrific version of a modern kids’ movie. Most of the jokes landed flat with me and I wish the film were screened in Spanish instead of English, but I still appreciated its family-friendly, culturally-specific immersion in a world of friendly ghosts & skeletons. You can find that same kind of kid-friendly adventure epic that healthily explores the topic of death & memory in Kubo & the Two Strings, though, with the bonus of also exploring how families can be complicated & even destructive instead of drawing a hard line that says you should always bend to their will. I’d be a liar if I said individual family-dynamic moments didn’t pull my heartstrings by the film’s ending, but I was still largely negative on Coco as an overall messaging piece. As soon as Miguel’s first guitar was smashed in front of his crying face, he should have boarded on a bus out of town to find a new, less cruel community elsewhere. The clear dichotomy the movie establishes between either a) the virtue of staying with your family no matter how shitty they are to you or b) “selfishly” branching out on your own to find a more hospitable environment sat with me in the wrong way. It was a thematic hurdle that all the pretty colors, goofy skeletons, and super cute canine sidekicks in the world couldn’t help me clear.

-Brandon Ledet

The Good Dinosaur (2015)

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twostar

Pixar released two feature films this year: one that made me question my typical lukewarm attitude toward their output & one that confirmed my usual indifference. Inside Out was a remarkable example of effective world-building, establishing a clear, concise visualization of the abstract concept of emotion & inner conflict. It wasn’t a particularly great looking movie, but it was so committed to its high-concept premise that the flat, simplified look of its CG animation didn’t matter all that much. The Good Dinosaur, on the other hand, goes skimpy on both visual intensity and narrative & world-building. It’s not much of a surprise given the film’s years-in-the-making troubled production, but The Good Dinosaur is frustrating as a finished product, as so much of the film is hopelessly bland, but there are flashes of brilliance trapped in the muck begging to be employed in a much better film.

The most glaring shortcoming in The Good Dinosaur is in its cutesy character designed. The film’s backgrounds are hyper-realistic , an incredible feat in CG animation. Its campfires, running water, and swaying tree branches are all so tangibly real-looking that they seem like nature photography. Even small, unimportant-to-the-plot creatures like bugs, birds, and lizards are visually well-defined, fitting in remarkably well with the background work. That’s why it’s such a shame that the dinosaurs themselves, the stars of the show, are such vague, babyish cartoon nothings. I get that it probably wouldn’t have been a good idea to have hyper-realistic dinosaurs running the show & scaring the crap out of children, but surely there was a better compromise to be had between the two extremes than what was delivered.

That said, it’s not just that the dinosaurs look vague & uninteresting. It’s also that their personalities are generically human in a too-predictable, clichéd way. The couple of times in the film where dinosaurs act like wild creatures instead of civilized people are genuinely entertaining, but they’re few & far between. The film’s Dinosaurs Are People Too approach to storytelling honestly isn’t worth much more than an eyeroll or two. Its depictions of dinosaur farmers & dinosaur cowboys are exhaustingly hokey to me, barely a step above the polar bear political lobbyist Rob Schneider voices in the dire-looking Norm of the North trailers. This isn’t helped at all by the detail that human beings are feral “critters” in this dino world, a corny bit of Now That’s What I Call Irony emptiness. There are a couple dinosaurs-acting-like-dinosaurs moments in the film. A couple vicious carnivores have their time to shine & there’s a particularly . . . trippy scene where the two main characters get intoxicated from a stockpile of fermented fruit (a scene that reminds me of the documentary Animals Are People Too, funnily enough), but most of their behavior is so human that they might as well have had desk jobs  in the 2010s instead of farm work 65 million years ago.

The Good Dinosaur gives off the distinct feeling of being a Pixar knockoff instead of the real deal, the same way Don Bluth productions used to feel like leftover Disney scraps a couple decades ago. The problem is that The Good Dinosaur is less Land Before Time (which told a human story, but still echoed believable dinosaur behavior) and more Rock-a-Doodle (which thought that a rooster Elvis was a kooky enough idea to carry an entire feature). The film isn’t a total shitpile. I kind of appreciated its Gravity-style plot structure where the central dinosaur is just beaten to shit by life & has to navigate a relentless gauntlet of problem solving. There are also some tear-jerking moments dealing with loss, mourning, and learning to let go, as well as a worthwhile overall message of “Sometimes you gotta get through your fear to see the beauty on the other side” that all could’ve belonged in a much better film. Unfortunately none of these moments amount to much more than  3 or 4 quick run-ins with intimidating antagonists & some familial tragedy borrowed wholesale from The Lion King.

The Good Dinosaur is ultimately of no consequence, a feature film not worth the emotional weight of its most admirable moments. It goes without saying that if you’re only going to see one Pixar movie this year you should make it Inside Out. I could probably go a step further, though, to say that if you’re going to watch two Pixar films this year, you should maybe consider watching Inside Out twice.

-Brandon Ledet

Inside Out (2015)

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I’m not usually one to give in to the charms of computer animation, which usually makes me feel like an outsider on a lot of Pixar’s output. The almost-universally loved animation studio has been running strong since the release of the first Toy Story movie in 1995. That means that after 20 years of animated feature dominance, Pixar now has two generations of children & young adults that have only known a life where the studio is on top, churning out the most well-received children’s media on the market. As a devotee to traditional, hand-drawn animation I sometimes miss out on the studio’s milestones, harboring lukewarm-at-best feelings about beloved titles like The Incredibles & WALL-E, having no patience at all for more dire properties like Brave & Finding Nemo (sorry, y’all), and having to shamefully admit that I haven’t even yet bothered with a few titles that I might actually like once I give them a chance, such as Up & Ratatouille. When the studio is on point it establishes a really vital connection with an enormous, diverse audience, which is a super cool thing for an animation studio to be able to accomplish these days, but I often feel like I miss out on that connection due to personal (and honestly, superficial) tastes regarding the movies’ visual format.

I don’t mean to point out this personal preference to distance myself from the Pixar Is Always Incredible, No Exceptions crowd, but just to provide context for my experience with their fifteenth feature film to date, Inside Out. I approached Inside Out with extreme caution due to reservations I had regarding the film’s ads. The general look of the movie had very little appeal for me (still does) and there were enough eyeroll-worthy moments regarding the difference between the sexes (yawn) that I had very little interest in the film. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that despite those reservations, I still found Inside Out remarkably touching & well-considered. Very similar in intent & execution to the 2007 short Anna & The Moods, Inside Out is a sincerely heartwarming look at the way a child’s psyche is remapped as they transition into young adulthood. While it did lose me on some of the traditional adventure plot trappings Pixar films tend to fall into, its idiosyncratic world-building that depicts exactly how a brain works & develops is more or less unmatched in media of its caliber.

The story Inside Out tells is bifurcated between the internal & the external (or the inside & the outside if you want to stick to the terminology of the title). As the protagonist Riley, an eleven year old hockey enthusiast anxious about her recent move to San Francisco, struggles to communicate about her newfound anxiety with her parents, her inner emotions scramble to take charge of the unexpected changes in her life in a productive way. The five emotions depicted in Inside Out (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger) are expertly personified by a perfect cast of voice actors (Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, and Lewis Black, respectively) who bring abstract concepts to life in a vivid, affecting way that everyone from young children to cynical adults can likely connect with. Making the abstract concrete & visible is exactly what Inside Out excels at as it methodically explains why sadness is a necessary emotion that should not be ignored in favor of unbridled joy. Until the still-developing Riley learns to accept sadness as an essential part of her emotional processing, she finds it extremely difficult to adjust to her new surroundings. It’s an incredibly important concept for young children to learn & Inside Out does a great job of framing the revelation in a traditional adventure story that is likely to be able to hold onto young attention spans for its entire 94min running time.

As stated, I didn’t completely buy everything Inside Out was selling. There’s no doubt in my mind that the film would’ve been more visually engaging if it were animated by hand, the adventure plot didn’t always metaphorically make sense, and there were uncomfortably gendered glimpses into minds outside of Riley’s (for instance her father’s psyche is controlled by anger while her mother’s is ruled by sadness), etc. However, these all feel like minor quibbles in view of what the film does right. The way Inside Out visualizes abstract thoughts like memories, angst, imagination, acceptance, and abstract thought itself is incredibly intricate & well considered. Its central message of the importance of sadness in well-rounded emotional growth is not only admirable, but downright necessary for kids to experience. Even if I downright hated the film’s visual aesthetic (I didn’t; it was just okay), I’d still have to concede that its intent & its world-building were top notch in the context of children’s media. As I’ve (hopefully) made abundantly clear, I’m far from a Pixar expert, but I’m confident it’s safe to say it’s the best film the studio has produced in the last five years, making it their best of the decade so far.

-Brandon Ledet