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Thursday, May 31, 2018

May 31, 2018: BlockbusterStudying: Coco


[Although Black Panther has already busted just about every conceivable block, Memorial Day launches the summer blockbuster season. So this week I wanted to return to some BlockbusterStudying, focusing especially on big hits from last year. Add your BlockbusterStudying thoughts, please!]
On the animated film that’s at least as culturally and historically important as Black Panther.
First things first: I haven’t had a chance to see Pixar’s latest film Coco (2017) yet, and so can’t speak in any specific way about either its details or its quality (although it’s Pixar and not in the Cars universe, so I’d be shocked if it’s not at least pretty darn good). My two favorite film reviewers, my sons, did have a chance to see it recently, and report that it’s “very good,” “a bit sad but with a happy ending,” and “not like any other animated movie,” which is the particular aspect of the film that I want to focus on in this post. Coco is the first film with a nine-figure budget (it reportedly cost upwards of $175 million to make) to feature an entirely Latino cast, with 12 year old newcomer and lead Anthony Gonzalez supported by established greats like Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Edward James Olmos, and many more. That might seem like a given for a film set in Mexico, but of course it’s anything but; just look at the cast for Disney’s Mulan (1998), which despite being set in imperial China featured non-Asian voice actors like Miguel Ferrer, Harvey Fierstein, Eddie Murphy, and Marni Nixon in prominent roles.
So Coco represents an important step in casting such big-budget animated (and non-animated) films, and one that nicely lines up with current conversations about diversity and inclusion riders, #OscarsSoWhite and Hollywood whitewashing and how to challenge and change such trends, and more. But the film is just as important, and to my mind even more so, when it comes to the questions of representation and identity that I discussed in this post on The Princess and the Frog (which, to its credit, did feature a largely African American cast voicing its African American characters, although the romantic lead Prince Naveen was voiced by the Brazilian American actor Bruno Campos). As I noted there, no genre of films connects with young viewers more consistently than animated films, and so casting such films with actors who reflect diverse communities—in any and all cases, but even more so when the film’s story and setting connect to those communities and their histories and stories—is a vital way to make diverse young Americans feel included in our collective conversations.
Indeed, I would go so far as to say that an all-Latino animated film like Coco is at least as important, culturally and historically, as is the overwhelmingly African and African American cast of Black Panther. Of course the actors are not visible on screen in an animated film in the same way that they are in a live-action one, and that difference is not insignificant when it comes to representation and perception. But kids (especially this born digital generation of kids) can and will look up the actors who play characters in an animated movie, will seek our interviews or behind the scenes clips, will learn more about the communal effort of making a film. And in at least some ways, doing so and finding out that the voice actors are just as consistently Latino as the film’s characters and setting could be an even more moving and powerful moment (for any kid, but doubly so for a Latino kid) than seeing actors who look like us on screen. One of many reasons to celebrate Coco, and to root for more blockbuster animated films like it in the years to come.
Last blockbuster tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other blockbusters you’d highlight and analyze?

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