Coco (2017): An Amazing Pixar Epic That Explores Family and Love

     Pixar has done it again. “Coco” is easily the best film their studio has put out since “Inside Out” and is definitely in my  Top 5 films made by the studio. This is film full of beautiful creativity, action that matters, a powerful message and enthralling characters. For my non-spoiler thoughts, this is Pixar and it isn’t a sequel, go and see it. Hopefully “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” will have been taken out before you see it too, I’m doing that as a separate review but it was the worst part of the viewing experience.

The film was directed by Lee Unkrich, written by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich and produced by Darla K. Anderson.

The story follows Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) a young boy who wants to be a musician but whose family has abandoned music after their ancestor left his wife long ago and never returned to become a musician. From here he finds himself pulled into the Land of the Dead as he seeks his ancestors blessing in order to return to the Land of the Living before he a curse he brought about sets in on himself and his family.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Animation – This is easily one of the best looking Pixar film since “Inside Out.” Like “Inside Out” it is colorful and full of contrasts and our characters are each distinct both in look and the voices portraying them. This is also Pixar, so great animation isn’t too much of a surprise, it just really stood out in this film.

The Family and Their Dynamics – The main drama that drives the story is Miguel’s relationship to his family and the relationship between his last known living ancestors. The story starts out with Miguel wanting to be a musician and believing the famous celebrity who died named Ernesto de la Cruz is his ancestor because of the picture on his mantel and the fact that he was from his village. His family does all they can to keep from music (his grandmother even breaks his guitar), leading him to go the Land of the Dead where he seeks de la Cruz’s blessing (as his ancestor Imelda will not give it). The story unfolds from here as the ancestors try to get him back to send him home so they won’t be cursed and as the story unfolds we learn more about Imelda’s relationship to music and her missing husband as the family comes together over the course of the film.

The Land of the Dead – The Land of the Dead is wonderfully done. It is a mixture of eras and technology and they even have a travel system on Day of the Dead where your face is checked to see if someone has put your picture up in the Land of the Living. It is all creatively done and built on popularity (with Ernesto de la Cruz being the star). I wanted to see more of this place as we get to see the entrance and the city but also the underbelly where Hector lives where those who are forgotten live before they pass away forever.

Hector and Imelda – These two were my favorite characters and their drama is the core of the story as Hector went off to be a musician and was killed by Ernesto when he tried to return home. Because Imelda was living on her own supporting Coco she started her family’s obsession with shoes as that was how they built a livelihood. Their arc is coming together again and taking down de la Cruz as Imelda discovers her love of singing again and Hector becomes part of the family once more as they are both reunited with Coco a year later after she dies.

The Coco Scenes – Coco is an ancient old woman and Miguel’s Great Grandmother. For much of the film she doesn’t interact at all, except for calling out her father’s name. It is this way until the end when Miguel returns and plays her song, “Remember Me,” that Hector used to sing to her before he would travel and do concerts. We learn she held onto his songs and a portion of the photograph her mother had torn and through remembering Hector he is remembered and doesn’t die in the Land of the Dead, with Coco joining her parents a year later. It is powerful and I teared up when Miguel sings her the song that Hector always had.

Okay: Ernesto de la Cruz – Benjamin Bratt voices a great villain as Cruz is one who only cares about seizing the moment and holding onto his station in life. He killed Hector and nearly kills Miguel, all to keep his power. I wish he’d been more complex, but as a villain you think might be a good guy at first, he was fun, so not a con.

Entering the Land of the Dead – Miguel enters the Land of the Dead when he plays his father’s guitar. There isn’t a reason given minus the border between worlds being thin, so I wish we had been told more. It wasn’t bad but it just kind of happens and he becomes a ghost.

This is a film that might have you tearing up by the end, as it did me. Films like this are why Pixar is so loved and I can’t wait to see what they do next. I’ll be buying this film when it comes out and it is easily one of my favorites of the year, even if it may not make the Top 5. The main story is solid, the emotional core is strong and the world is amazing. The only things they could have improved on were the villain and how Miguel entered the Land of the Dead.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

Finding Dory (2016): A Brilliant Exploration of What it Means to be Dory

Finding Dory Poster

    For sequels that didn’t need to be made, this is a really good sequel. Pixar is one of those studios I’ve come to expect quality from and they continue this here as this is a film that will pull on your heart strings and gives our characters complete arcs and a fantastic adventure for it all to take place in. My non-spoiler thoughts are basically that you should see this film. It is no “Inside Out” or the untouchable Pixars but is is really good and is well worth your time.

   The film was directed by Andrew Stanton who also wrote the story and screenplay with Victoria Strouse also writing the screenplay with him. The producer was Lindsey Collins.

   The story involves Dory’s (Ellen DeGeneres) search for her parents when a memory is triggered that she lost them a long time ago and that they are at the Jewel of Morro Bay, California. This leads to her Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) traversing there to help her remember why she is searching and to find them again.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The World of “Finding Dory” is an amazing one! Whether it is in the reef or the Marine Life Institute Pixar’s diverse assortment of characters creates a rich world where the relationships only make it greater.

The Soundtrack – Thomas Newman once again creates gold! I have yet to be disappointed by his work and here he does a good job of capturing Dory’s terror of being lost and her joy of being reunited once again with her family.

The Animation – It’s Pixar, their animation has only gotten better with time. You can see the details on the fish, from their expressions to their scales…Pixar continues to create animation that looks so alive.

The Opening Scene – The opening scene is touching and sad as we see that Dory getting lost is what lead to her forgetting what she was looking for (her parents) that lead to her finding Marlin in the first place. Her parents help her with memory games and we see where she gets her songs and sayings from…they were to help her remember to find her way home.

Dory’s Memories – Dory’s memories are some of the strongest moments as we see her connection to characters and what they mean in those flashbacks, even if Dory doesn’t get their meaning fully…we do.

The Characters – Pixar has always been very character driven in it’s productions and this film is no different. The characters are what make this film besides the action, score and animation…and we get many more amazing characters.

Fluke and Rudder – These Sea Lions played by Idris Elba (Fluke) and Dominic West (Rudder) are hilarious and sadly also a bit of bullies. They help Marlin and Nemo get into the Marine Institute but they are also always picking on Gerald, who isn’t all there. They provide great comedic relief though as they are the one who call the birds to pick up Nemo and Marlin and witness the journey and escape at the end.

Destiny and Bailey – Destiny is a Whale Shark and Bailey is a Beluga Whale. Destiny was Pipe Pals with Dory when they were kids and is near sided so is always crashing into the tank. Bailey believes he can’t use his sonar…their arcs are coming to count on one another and have great chemistry with one another and Dory. Destiny was played by Kaitlin Olson and Bailey by Ty Burrell…both were fantastic.

Hank – Ed O’Neil plays my favorite character in the film. He is a red octopus who was traumatized by his experience in the sea so just wants to live out his life safe in a tank. It takes his adventure with Dory to realize he does care about people and to soften him up. He becomes part of her family by the end. His dark humor is great with Dory’s idealism and I’m glad we get to spend so much time with him.

Marlin and Nemo – The classics are back from the first one and much of their journey is finding Dory while Marlin learns to both respect Dory and her disability and also to let Dory be free in herself…an arc her parents also have to go through. I’m glad we didn’t spend as much time with these two as their arcs were largely in the first film.

Jenny and Charlie – These two are Dory’s parents and their arc is learning to trust their daughter and let her be herself and make her own choices. This understandably hard as they’d been waiting for her for years outside the Institute after she got lost…but she demonstrates that they raised her well and that she may not remember always but she knows how to survive, plan and to help others.

Dory – Dory is the main character of this film and her relationships are what define the film as we see her help her parents, Hank and Martin grow to accept her fully just as she learns fully to accept herself and her own power. As someone who found this for myself living with aspergers this is huge. Dory’s story is one of empowerment and shows that no matter how hard things get, going forward you can change your circumstances and find those who accept and love you.

Living With a Disability – A huge theme of the film is what it is like to live with a disability. As one who grew up with Aspergers I can relate to this, you face challenges were early on you do need help on and there are some things that never go away…even as you find ways to face those challenges and to grow from them to the point where you can be successful and stand on your own and from it live with the dignity everyone deserves.

Disabilities and Dignity – Dignity is a huge theme of the film as it is when Dory is shut down and hurt that she really goes off and gets lost…it is when the support is there that it is easier to face her memory loss and it is from dignity that she finds self respect and respect from her friends and family.

Okay: The Marine Life Institute – I think this was meant to be shown as positive sine the animals are all to be released into the wild (except those that are too sick) but it is still an antagonist I guess? The Marine Life Institute and their role in the film is ill-defined and more could have been done to explore the different animals’ relationships to it.

Cons: Drags in Places – There are some action sequences that go on a bit too long, especially at the end where Dory panics…the scene could have been shorter and still had the same impact with her finding her parents, same goes for the escape at the end. Some scenes just go on too long. If more had been cut I’d have easily given this a 9.

The Treatment of Gerald Versus the Theme – Gerald is a Sea Lion that also appears to have a mental disability but it is largely played for laughs. This struck me as off as the whole point of the film is accept people with all their quirks and that all deserve dignity. I don’t think Gerald ever got that from others.

   This was a really good Pixar film and one I’d highly recommend. It is bound to make you tear up at least once as Dory’s story is one that many people are no doubt familiar with. Dory gives a human face to what it is like to live with disability and the film is wonderful at respecting her dignity and personhood as we see just how great her family is by the end of the film. The only contradiction to this is the treatment of Gerald who is bullied and looks like he is also facing some sort of mental handicap. Gerald deserved respect just like Dory. Outside of this problem and some pacing issues this was a really good film. If you are fan of Pixar or animation you won’t be disappointed.

Final Score: 8.8 / 10

Inside Out (2015): The Importance of All Emotions and Another Pixar Masterpiece

Inside-Out-Official-Poster

  “Inside Out” is the best Pixar Film I have seen that wasn’t “Toy Story 3” since “Up” and “Wall-E” Which are my favorite films of the Pixar creations. Like “Wall-E” and “Up” this is a film that explores what it means to be human and brings balance as it is an experience of all the emotions. Pixar has been a company that has mostly made Gold and for me this film was in the Top 3, where in the Top 3 would take a re-watching of those films but this is just as good of quality of film as “Up” and “Wall-E.” I’ll get into the reasons why that is.

   The film was directed by Pete Docter who also co-wrote the story and screenplay, screenplay was also by Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley. It was produced by Jonas Rivera and the co-writer of the story was Ronnie Del Carmen.

   The story is about Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) and her emotions, which are beings inside of her who are thrown into chaos when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Joy (Amy Poehler, who is the lead emotion controls all the Core Emotions that run Riley as a person but when Sadness (Phyllis Smith) creates a Core Emotion Joy attempts to stop it leading them to be lost in Long Term Memory and seeing to get back to Headquarters before Riley loses herself.

SPOILERS

The Pros: The Concept – The idea of emotions being personified is really cool as well as leaving it ambiguous if Riley is the one controlling the emotions and leading them to do things, or if they are they are the ones controlling her. There is support for both ideas that is explored over the course of the film and it lends it power. Also the idea of giving us characters so that an individual character can find balance is a powerful idea.

The Writing – The dialogue is hilarious! There is a moment in the end when Riley gives a bottle to a boy who dropped it and puberty is hit and all the emotions in his head are panicking and screaming, “GIRL! GIRL! GIRL!” And many other moments that are similar through Riley’s development through childhood.

The Soundtrack – Michael Giacchino did an amazing job! The soundtrack is whimsical, dramatic, serious…whatever circumstances demand and it adds so much to the change the characters go through.

The Characters – From Riley’s emotions, to her parents…we see a huge complex array of characters who are true to reality and end up being so much more than the archetypes they represent.

Bing Bong – Bing Bong is Riley’s imaginary friend who is lost in Long Term Memory. Everything he does is his quest to get back to Riley and live the life they used to live. Richard King gives so much heart to this character who in the end sacrifice himself so that Joy can be free from the Pit and that Riley will be able to be happy again…in his realization that Riley has grown beyond needing him and there is one last thing he can do to make her happy.

The Family – Riley and her parents are fleshed out characters who feel real. They have flaws but at their core love one another and it is reflected.

Riley’s Mother – The mother is controlled by Sadness and is someone who cares deeply, especially about Riley. She is the first to reach out to Riley but also dreams of what might have been with her Brazilian ex. She finds contentment with her husband in the end when he shows the spontaneity he lost and she is the one who is always there for Riley.

Riley’s Father – Riley’s Father is someone trapped in his work but who still finds time to try and be there for his daughter. In the end the move to San Francisco and work not going as planned make it more difficult, but in the end he shows that so much of what he does is for her. He is also the reason she has a Hockey Island in her sub-conscience and a Jokester Island as part of her Core Personality.

Riley – Riley is a fascinating character! She is the only one we see who has both Male Emotions (Emotions represented by Male Voice Actors being Lewis Black for Anger and Bill Hader for Fear) but whose primarily controllers are still the Female Voice Actors being Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and Joy (Amy Poehler) along with Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Her arc is learning to feel sadness and knowing it okay to feel sadness and that she doesn’t have to be the happy little girl for her parents as the move to San Francisco is hard for her and she loses her best friend in the process and is cut off from all her stuff that holds memories. This eventually leads to her running away and later returning as she is finally able to feel Sad which Joy had been repressing throughout her life.

The Emotions – The Emotions change over the course of the film and they have a great dynamic! Each of them is in control in different situations as the other 4 do not know what to do. They are Fear, Disgust, Anger, Sadness and Joy who is their leader.

Fear – Hader does a great job as Fear as we see him in charge of sleep and being a big reason why Nightmares happen as Fear is in control of the dark (which makes sense). He does a great job protecting Riley though he sometimes crosses into Paranoia and can be easily controlled by Anger or Disgust.

Disgust – Disgust is the one who helps Riley adapt. Whether it is adapting her pallat or her surrounding as Disgust is in charge of social life and the food she eats. It is a really cool concept and we see that Disgust is a Team player who ties into the other emotions. Mindy Kaling does a wonderful job as her.

Anger – Lewis Black is wonderful as Anger! He has so many rants that fit what is going on in Riley’s mind. From a memory of an annoying commercial setting him off to him eventually controlling things when Joy and Sadness leave. Anger is one of the strongest emotions but is related ot fear as at the core Anger wants to be happy and this leads to Anger’s plan to get Riley back to Minnesota where she was happy. He later changes his mind but by then they have lost all control and Riley is losing the ability to feel. He is a protector type and also Riley’s ability to stand up for herself. It is Disgust’s and Fear’s use of him that open up Headquarters to Sadness and Joy.

Sadness – Sadness is repressed but wants to be a part of Riley and is a part of Riley that is hidden away. For her it is her knowledge of things that make Joy messing things up lead to a possible solution as she always sees the worst. Her arc is realizing her value and with that being as much a part of Riley as Joy as both Joy and Sadness are so interconnected since when a Joyful memory passes there will be Sad Nostalgia. She is the one who would have gotten Joy out of a lot of bad situations if Joy had not been so spontaneous. Phyllis is fantastic in this role.

Joy – Amy Poehler gives so much life to this very Woody-like Control Freak who wants all of Riley’s life to be just happy memories. Her arc over this is realizing that Sadness is an important part of an individual as she feels sadness both for Bing Bong helping her save Riley and sacrificing himself in the process and being trapped and alone and afraid for Riley. Her arc is realizing that Sadness is connected to Joy and that Sadness is just as important and that a whole life isn’t one that is just happy but one where a person feels everything and is allowed to grow as growth is stopped when emotions are repressed as she was doing to Sadness.

It’s Okay to be Sad – The core message is that sadness is important that it is not a bad emotion (really none of them are). The key is what we do. Sometimes running away isn’t the best option but sometimes it is…and within that not suppressing or letting the emotions control is where balance is found and from that recognizing that sorrow and sadness are an essential part of what makes one human.

Emotions Control the Individual or Vise Versa – An amazing idea that the film has that I realized when watching it is that the emotions are a part of Riley so have limited agency. When Riley was wanting to feel sad Sadness acted, Joy may have tried to suppress it but Riley was seeking out that emotion to be a whole again and in the end all of Joy’s actions couldn’t stop that as Riley falling apart made her realize the actions and agency of Riley mattered. Another way to see that is that the Emotions are Ghosts in the Machine and that it was them seeing the Machine break down that lead to them reestablishing control. Both interpretations work but I like the one where Riley is the one controlling them even if sometimes in extreme situations they control too…as when we see her balanced they are all working together showing harmony between the “Ghosts” and the “Machine.”

Balance – Riley’s quest for balance is her seeking to accept and recognize the sadness she feels but to not let that destroy her Core Personality…that even as things were hard she could still Imagine, feel love for her family and still allow room for her interest in Hockey and to be funny. It is in her becoming imbalanced and not feeling that she finally forces the Emotions or Joy finally chooses to accept Sadness as essential that she feels and opens up to her parents and from it is able to feel once more and be whole even in all the pain she is going through.

   This is a timeless classic and well worth your time. I expect that everytime I see it I will notice and learn something knew as they sought out those who study Psychology for a living to create the mind of Riley and the other characters as well as the expression of the emotions. The fact that they leave the power of Emotions open is powerful too as we never know if Riley was the one shaping the story the entire time, or if it was the emotions doing so. How much agency did Riley or her Emotions have? That is something that could be debated endlessly. If you are looking for another Pixar Classic that is one of the best they’ve made, you will not be disappointed. It is a favorite I can’t wait to see again.

Final Score: 10 / 10. Will most likely be in the Top 5 at the end of this year.