Coco, Olaf, and Disney's Attempts at Representation

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The new Disney/Pixar film Coco has topped the box office for three weekends in a row, and is well on its way toward passing Justice League and becoming the biggest hit movie to come out during the mid-November-to-mid-December corridor – in other words, in between Disney/Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok and Disney/Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Disney owns a lot of stuff, you guys, and they’re angling to own more with a possible purchase of Fox’s movie and TV studios). This is not surprising in the sense that Pixar movies are often big hits (and, again, Disney owns everything) – but it is notable that this particular Pixar production features almost entirely Mexican characters (and I say “almost” only because the origins of its happily mangy dog sidekick are technically unknown).


I just edited a new edition of our intro to film studies book The Film Experience, and one of our objectives for the new edition was to revamp our history coverage to talk more directly about major contributors to the medium’s development who happen to be members of marginalized groups – and whose stories are not always told in traditional narratives about how film got to where it is today. And where it is today, incidentally, still requires a ton more work to do, especially in Hollywood – it’s rare to see a live-action big studio film as dominated by non-white people as this animated one, though Universal’s Fast & Furious series does its part. But we are seeing progress, and it’s particularly heartening to see this progress coming from Pixar, because the company hasn’t made that many movies focusing on humans, period, as opposed to the secret lives of toys, bugs, monsters, fish, scarily sentient planet-dominating cars, and so on.


Coco isn’t just a movie where the characters happen to be Mexican (though there’s value in that kind of creative choice, too, of course; that's closer to the kind of inclusive casting choices Disney has made on the new Star Wars pictures), but one that specifically speaks to the dynamics of a large Mexican family, that takes place on the Day of the Dead, and immerses itself in a particular culture’s notions about family, memory, and the afterlife. It’s not as hilarious as some past Pixar movies, but it’s a lovely little film. A lot of cartoons have trouble telling human stories that are actually about humans (perhaps understandably; toys and monsters and bugs are probably more fun to animate), and in a relatively weak year for family-targeted animation, which has seen plenty of big-studio product scrambling for a marketable hook (The Boss Baby; The Emoji Movie), it’s nice to see Coco create a fully felt character out of Miguel, its young hero. The movie is still wildly imaginative in its designs – Pixar’s vision of a city populated by the deceased does not disappoint – but it never feels desperate to throw everything it can think of at its audience As a result, it also feels confident that the audience will find it.


One interesting aspect of Coco’s success is only tangentially related to the movie itself, but does have to do with the notion of an audience finding it despite the lack of Nemo, Dory, Woody Buzz, or the Incredibles. Coco was initially released in theaters with a short subject in front of it, as has become tradition for most Disney animated features, and just about every Pixar feature. But this wasn’t a Pixar short attached to Coco; rather, it was a 20-minute “featurette” starring the characters from Disney’s megahit Frozen. If 20 minutes sounds like it stretches the definition of a short subject (especially for a family audience), that’s because Olaf’s Frozen Adventure is, in fact, a TV special (an airdate of 12/14 on ABC was recently announced) tacked on to the front of Coco, ostensibly as a special treat.


Both the specialness and the treatness have been in doubt, however. There’s speculation that Disney may have been nervous about the financial prospects of a non-sequel Pixar joint with such a specific cultural focus, which would explain why they gave so much screentime over to perhaps the whitest set of characters in the current Disney stable (I mean, the main character in it is a dang snowperson). But what happened next, as the clickbait headlines say, may surprise you: Audiences reacted with irritation towards the Frozen spinoff. Now, a lot of this is anecdotal, as almost all chronicles of audience reactions tend to be, and some of it has to do with the simple yet nearly unsolvable math problem of how to make a kid sit for a 20-minute “short” plus a 105-minute feature (the only real solution: have extremely patient kids). It’s probably a mistake, as ever, to confuse Twitter-complaining with a popular sentiment.


Olaf: newfound public enemy number one?

But over in Mexico, where Coco has become the highest-grossing movie in the country’s history (!), the results have been a bit more quantifiable: Though Disney stopped running the Olaf special in front of Coco after a few weeks of its U.S. release, some Mexican theaters (which got the movie several weeks before their U.S. counterparts) began taking it upon themselves to not show Olaf’s Frozen Adventure after some audiences complained. The audiences were – get this – wildly excited to see Coco itself, to see powerful representation from a beloved studio, moreso than whatever bonus Disney thought might draw bigger crowds. U.S. audiences, too, turned out not to need hand-holding from Olaf to lead them into Coco. It's a potent example both of how Disney may be thinking more progressively than they were even five or six years ago... and how audiences around the world may be even further ahead than that.


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