Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Movie Review: Coco

Coco is the sort of beautiful, engrossing movie that reminds audiences why Pixar is the absolute best there is in computer animation. The characters' emotions are relatable, the setting is vivid, and story flows organically. And let's not lose sight of the fact it offers some welcome cultural representation.

And, if this weren't 2017, if their record of featuring women as the central lead was better than three out of nineteen, if John Lasseter's name hadn't been plastered across the screen on the same day he stepped down over vague harassment issues... if any of those weren't the case, I suspect the rest of this review would just be an expansion of that first paragraph. It's a Pixar movie, with everything positive that implies.

But things being what they are, I feel like I need to address the misogyny permeating this otherwise wonderful movie.

I spent quite a bit of time weighing whether that's the right word, but I really think it is. The movie features three female characters in predominant roles. One, the title character, is basically a hundred year-old variation on the sexy lamp test - in a real sense, she's a device that the male characters care for and want to adjust, but she has no character or agency herself. I'm making her role sound a little worse than it is - in context, it makes sense, and if the movie had more female characters, it wouldn't be worth bringing up at all.

Let's talk about the other two women. Actually, calling them two separate characters might be generous - they're functionally reflections of each other. That's by design - one is the deceased grandmother of the other, who's filling her ancestor's shoes (quite literally). Think the Wizard of Oz (which is pretty clearly the inspiration for Coco's story); the family matriarch exists in both worlds the way the Lion, Woodsman, and Scarecrow were double-cast.

They're not exactly the movie's antagonists, but they are its primary obstacles. I'll spell it out: due to something that happened generations earlier, the family has outlawed music of any form in their home. Don't get too bogged down in the Footloose aspects - the movie sells this better than you'd think, and it's not the main problem. The issue is that the power and will behind this ultimatum lies fully with these two matriarchs, both of whom are irrational and headstrong to the point of being cruel. This is the stereotypical cold spinster - a classic sexist trope. Hell, one is actually a woman scorned: that's her motivation.

And that's the sum total of women in significant roles. There are a few bit parts, some of which come off a touch more sympathetic. The main character's mom seemed fine in her brief seconds on screen, and there were a few other small roles, but nothing adding up to much. Unless I'm forgetting a throwaway scene (and I don't think I am), this doesn't come close to passing the Bechdel Test.

There is redemption for the women by the end, including some pretty great moments for the original matriarch, but it doesn't entirely address the root problem. Over the course of the movie, the two male leads go on a journey, both literal and spiritual, and learn a lesson. The two female characters, on the other hand, are taught a lesson by the men: that's not the same thing.

This was less an issue with this movie than a pervasive problem at Pixar. If it weren't for the confluence of events I mentioned at the start, I don't think I'd have devoted more than a sentence or two to the movie's depiction of women. But while Pixar has given us some of the best animated movies ever made, the company has a bad history with women. They made twelve movies centered around men before they made one with a woman. For a brief period, it seemed like they might have addressed the issue - we got Brave, Inside-Out, and Finding Dory in a relatively short span of time (all great movies).

But it seems like we've taken a step back, and that's a shame. In part, because this is a really good movie. I found it moving, funny, and both visually and aurally spectacular. But every time one of the two main women did something horribly cruel or irrational for the point of giving the men something to overcome, I was reminded that there's something rotten on Pixar's head. And I found myself wondering whether removing the infection for six months was really going to be enough time for the company to heal.

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