How Coco Succeeded Where Moana Failed

Okay since it’s the last day of 2017 I want to finish the year on a high note with what little writing inspiration I have. Be warned for Coco spoilers!

So, as I’ve made it abundantly clear, I don’t like Moana. At all. Whenever I watch Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6 I cry over how they’re so much better and lament on how I was hoping Moana would join their ranks of my ultimate faves. Alas, it was not meant to be.

But, I have found a new Disney movie that filled the void left by Moana. That film is Coco.

Coco Movie Poster

For this movie I kept my expectations relatively low given the controversy surrounding it. Once it came out and it got a more welcome reception I decided to see it, and man, it is so good. Probably Pixar’s second best movie (after Up) and the best animated film of 2017.

So how did Coco fill the void Moana left?

Well, my biggest problem with Moana was the fact that the titular character is…kind of a Mary Sue. She lives a charmed life on an island where everyone adores her and she’s set to be the chief, is chosen to save the world, is able to outsmart and outrun monsters, and helps not one but TWO gods…but she feels like something is wrong with her because she wants to go sailing. Oh the horror. But don’t worry we’ll have contrived moments where we’re made to doubt about her legitimacy as a navigator and the chosen one, and she’ll turn out to be exactly right in the end.

Well, it turns out that the reason why her conflict is supposed to be so major is because, as one commentator pointed out to me, in Polynesia respect for your family and elders is paramount. You’re supposed to carry on the traditions of your family, and you need to be obedient to your parents. So, okay, that would make sense for Moana to feel conflicted if that was the case. The only problem?

THE MOVIE DOESN’T ESTABLISH THIS. Like for all the praise the movie gets for honoring Polynesian culture it couldn’t be assed to explain a VERY important custom and plot point. Because we, as the audience, aren’t informed of how important family piety is in Moana’s culture, her relationship with her father and her central conflict just come across as angsty for no reason. But again, Moana turns out to be EXACTLY right in the end because lo and behold navigating was part of her culture’s tradition all along.

And this is where Coco succeeds. We understand Miguel’s plight better because we know WHY it would be a huge deal for him. He has actual talent and passion for music, which has been forbidden from his family after his great-great-grandfather left the family to pursue it. And the movie shows us how important family is in Mexican culture in an organic manner because of how significant Miguel’s family members are to him (not just the one grandma who understands him). Therefore, we understand WHY his conflict is a big issue, and how it ties in with the story and world-building.

Adding to this, the characters in Coco are MUCH more likable than in Moana. Miguel is a sweet twelve year old boy who learns throughout the movie how important family and remembering the ones before him is, and is ultimately able to use music not to pursue his own interests, but to use it to bring his family together. Hector is a sympathetic and lovable companion who genuinely cares for Miguel and his family. Imelda starts off rather stubborn and strict but learns that reconnecting with your roots and loved ones is more important than holding a ban on music. And Ernesto is a chillingly realistic villain, who can be genuinely affable but ultimately puts fame and fortune above everyone else. And of course the character of Coco herself is the heart and soul of the movie. I can get attached to these characters more because Miguel’s central conflict is better established and goes through more natural development, and Hector isn’t an asshole companion.

You’re probably wondering why I feel it is necessary to compare these specific films. Well, that’s because they’re both meant to be authentic representations of non-white/non-American cultures made accessible to a worldwide audience. And because Coco actually takes the time to establish how significant family and music are in Mexican culture and weave it into the story, I walk out of the movie feeling like I’ve actually gotten a celebration of a different culture than mine. While Moana no doubt had an impact on Polynesian audiences (and it’s important for that), I feel like it didn’t do a good job exploring important customs that crucially explain parts of the story. The fact that it takes place mostly on the open ocean can make the Polynesian setting feel tacked on for diversity points. But more than anything, I really hoped Moana would go all the way into Polynesian stories and culture, and to me, it just felt like another by-the-numbers Princess movie. I hope we can have at least one more movie set in the Pacific Islands that is able to delve deeper into the rich world of the peoples there. But until then, I’m going to settle for Coco instead.

Happy New Year! Hope to get back to you soon to write about The Incredibles 2, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse!

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Author: Laura Alexander

My name is Laura, I use they/them pronouns, and I'm a college student with Asperger's currently enrolled at the Social Service Worker Program at Sheridan College. I have a passion for film and animation, social issues, and helping others, all of which will be featured on The Flying Red Robot blog. Please read the about page before commenting or following. "Big Hero 6" is my favourite movie.