Christmas has long since passed, giving us all plenty of time to watch Pixar’s Soul a second a third time on our friend’s Disney+ account. This means it’s time for a Pixar face-off. Soul’s worthy competitor will be Academy Award-winning film, Coco. While the films are vastly different, their similarities in character journey, their central theme of music and their representation of minority cultures allow us to put the films side by side to determine which really has more soul.
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Pixar released Coco, a film that would become a shining star in the 2018 awards season, in late 2017. Coco was the second of two Pixar films released that year and was the fifth Pixar film for director Lee Unkrich. Coco centers around Miguel, a young musician living in a matriarchal family that has banned music, as he ventures through the Land of the Dead, searching for a relative to give him their blessing to return him to the Land of the Living. Coco went on to win two Academy Awards, Golden Globe Awards and Critic’s Choice Movie Awards for both animation and music.
Coco received extensive critical acclaim and audiences loved it. Not only was the story well rounded and meaningful, but it was also fun to watch. One of the Academy Awards this film won was for Best Animated Movie and for good reason. Coco was a turning point for Pixar as far as animation goes. This was the most vibrant film Pixar had made yet, both in color and in detail. It was this animation paired with the constant flow of multilayered musical moments and a powerful storyline that created the success of Coco.
Much of the inspiration for the film is said to have come directly from Mexico as it is centered around the family dynamic of a traditional matriarchal Mexican family and the holiday Dia De Los Muertos. Choosing this holiday to center the story’s messages of familial love and the power of music allowed this film to have an impact far greater than anything Pixar could have imagined. From the marigold bridge that connects the two worlds to the classic Mexican ballad “La Llorona,” Mexican culture is so clearly honored and celebrated through every aspect of the film.
For a film centered around a family that has banned music, there’s quite a bit of it. While Miguel has always had a passion for music, it’s his journey through the Land of the Dead that shows him the power music can have and where that power comes from. The team behind the music in Coco drew from more than just the traditional Mariachi, allowing audiences to hear just how expansive and diverse Mexican music can be.
A big reason this film drew in the audience that it did was that this was really the first time we saw Pixar embody a minority culture in one of its films, going as far as to release a Spanish version that featured many of the original voice actors. It was thought that Soul would do something similar but for Black culture. It was hard to miss the similarities between the two films from the very start. Both had main characters with a passion for music, both characters would go on a journey of self-discovery through a spiritual realm and both were from minority cultures.
Similarities aside, Soul had big shoes to fill coming after a successful and brand-new story concept like Coco. It was expected that Pixar would use Coco as a steppingstone to make Soul successful in its own right while also bringing something new to the table in terms of both story and animation.
In the weeks since Soul was released on Disney+, the film has received mixed reviews from critics and audiences. The film received high praise from critics and audiences alike but where critics applauded the film for its story, humor and imagery, audiences, agreeing that the film was masterfully animated, were still underwhelmed by the overall film.
Screenwriters Mike Jones and Kemp Powers did an incredible job of creating a story that fit the time so well. Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Phylicia Rashad and Angela Bassett are just a few of the iconic voices that were able to embody their characters and tell this story of passion and self-discovery. The writing alongside these talented actors allowed Soul to breach such a deeply intrinsic topic in an easily digestible manner without sacrificing the message itself.
However, a big part of this film was supposed to be music and that is not what it felt like. The main character, Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), believes that what truly drives him in life is music and goes on a journey to help 22, a wandering soul from “The Great Beyond” (voiced by Tina Fey), find what inspires them. The film gives us great musical moments, written and performed by Jon Batiste, that translate Joe’s passion for jazz. Unfortunately, the score, created by composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, gets lost in other ambient noise during some of the more mundane moments of the film.
Reznor and Ross created a sound that strikingly contrasted that of Batiste’s and brought to life “The Great Before.” Their score, accompanied by the film’s vibrant animation, seamlessly transported audiences from the bustling streets of New York to the ethereal planes of “The Great Before.” Though by making the two worlds so different, the element of jazz is almost completely lost, making you forget that jazz is supposed to be the heart of the film.
While the lack of incorporation of jazz into the fabric of the film was disappointing, at least Batiste’s musical moments were able to shine through, making the biggest letdown of the movie be its representation of Black culture. After a film like Coco, where Mexican culture was infused into almost every element of the film, a lot was expected from Pixar when it was announced that Soul would be the first Pixar film with a Black lead. These expectations were met with yet another Black character not represented as Black for a good portion of the film and minimal representation of Black culture.
Putting these two films side by side, you can see the value in each, but you can also pinpoint where one flourished in the same way the other lacked. For example, each was beautifully animated but where Coco drew heavily on vibrant colors for its animation, Soul’s animation seemed to get its vibrance from light. Where Coco was a musical that had a steady stream of appropriately tailored musical moments, Soul was a movie that scattered in their big musical moments.
When it comes to comparing the execution of how Soul and Coco drew from Black and Mexican cultures respectively, there’s really no contest. The comparison is not meant to determine whether Mexican culture is better or more marketable than Black culture. It’s more so meant to highlight how well Pixar could draw from so many aspects of Mexican culture and really pay homage to it in a way they didn’t come close to doing in Soul for Black culture. Coco breathes more life into the story and the culture it’s drawing from making Soul seem almost dull in comparison.
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