Two animated features hit theaters this fall starring predominantly minority casts, but only one of them did it right.
Disney’s Big Hero 6 got lots of praise in the media and from reviewers of color for its starring cast: comprised of two Asians, a black guy, Latina and a white guy who’s clearly stoned, the cast of the big-screen adaptation is in some ways an upgrade over some of the goofy stereotypes that featured in the Marvel comic that inspired it.
Unfortunately, beyond the hybridized aesthetic of the movie’s fictional locale, San Fransokyo (topping the Golden Gate bridge with torii was pretty inspired) the movie doesn’t do much to celebrate the diversity of the multicultural starring cast it’s so lauded for. Even reminding people that the story’s protagonist might have been the product of sexual congress between two Asian people was too much to ask: Hiro and his brother, Tadashi, have been parented by a white auntie of undefined relation since the pair’s Japanese parents died (I’ve heard Aunt Cass was originally going to be their mom, but someone along the way got over their heebie-jeebies at the idea of Hiro being 100% Asian). There is a cat adorably named “Mochi”, tho, to ensure you that the writers have at least seen the menu at a sushi restaurant before.
Big Hero 6 has little to offer a generation of American kids with an unprecedented level of literacy vis a vis Japanese culture; kids that have grown up reading and watching art created by Japanese people, with Japanese protagonists set in Japan. Disney’s legendary skittishness is simply out of touch with a generation of young people that doesn’t even perceive a difference between American cartoons and Japanese ones.
Instead of paying any meaningful attention to the cultures of the diverse cast, Big Hero is liberal Democrat utopia where minorities aren’t under-represented in STEM courses and enthusiastically put their eager minds to work building better bombs. Hiro learns firsthand the difference between “good science” and “bad science” when the nanobots he invents to win a robotics competition are stolen and weaponized by a super-villain, leading to his brother’s death. How does Hiro react to this? By turning the cuddly Baymax — a healthcare robot that used to plod around diagnosing Hiro’s mental health issues — into a walking death drone that shoots its fists off like rockets.
Transmogrifying Tadsahi’s last invention into a death-bot seems like a fucked-up way for Hiro to honor his brother’s legacy, but that kind of flouting of ethics is pretty much the trend in Big Hero– before long each of the four engineering students that help round out the titular “6” are happily turning their school projects into WMDs so they can take down the bad guy (one self-aware moment makes the point when one character’s hideous invention nearly chops a guy’s arm off when trying to execute a high-five). No one bats an eye when Hiro upgrades Baymax’s biometric scanner — once used to spot medical ailments — into a mass-surveillance device. All for the greater good.
Some of you will insist that expecting a realistic depiction of how young people of color might uniquely react to the weaponization of technologies — after all, we are disproportionately the targets of surveillance and increasingly militarized technology — is too much to ask of a kids movie adapted from an obscure comicbook. But if the minority characters don’t reflect the values and viewpoints that minorities actually have, then what’s the point?
When people of color demand inclusion and representation, it means creating space for our unique ideas and stories, and the philosophies and themes that leap forward from imaginations shaped by our cultures. Just browning up some of the faces in the background should be the lowest bar to clear at this point.
In contrast to Big Hero 6, The Book of Life is unapologetically Mexican — a not-coincidental outcome of actually being created by Mexicans. In this story, Mexico is literally the center of the universe and mariachis, matadors and mustaches provide the backdrop for a fresh fairytale milieu.
Central to Book is the rivalry between the sensitive, guitar-strumming protagonist Manolo (Diego Luna) and the swashbuckling war hero, Joaquin (Magic Mike) as they both compete for the beautiful Maria’s (Zoe Saldana’s) heart.
Pressured by his dad to drop the guitar and take up the family’s bull-fighting tradition, Manolo’s angsty journey (he croons a mariachi remix of Radiohead’s “Creep”) is ultimately one of self-actualization. His greatest triumph occurs when he learns to love himself just in time for his previously misunderstood compassion to save the day. Isn’t that a way better message for your kids than another sugared-up videogame punch-fest?
Book’ll indoctrinate your kids by immersing them in the beauty of Mexican folk mythology, realized earnestly by writer-director Jorge R. Gutierrez clearly working from a place of deep familiarity and appreciation of the subject. Even if you don’t know Gutierrez by name, you’ve probably his seen unmistakable designs on shows like Mucha Lucha! and El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera. Book feels like Gutierrez’s grand opus; an entire world (and underworld) built of his imagination and in his inimitable image. As a result, the look and feel of San Angel and the people that populate it—figurines come to life, right down the manly stubble whittled into Manolo’s wooden jawline—help this movie stand out starkly from the other 6,000 computer animated films released every year.
Familiar fairytale trappings get a facelift in Book of Life: the benevolent La Muerte, a slender beauty in rose red and calavera make-up, is a new-school take on the frumpy fairy godmother of Disney yore (she’s already an overnight cosplay favorite). One trusted paradigm gets smashed altogether: unlike the orphaned heroes of most fairy-tale stories, Manolo’s big, colorful family tags along to lend a helping hand.
This is the practical benefit of making space for real diversity. Book doesn’t shrink away from its cultural points of difference (“What’s with Mexicans and death!?” one of the white students blurts during a break in the story) and instead explores and celebrates them. The concept of death presented in the movie, where the Land of the Dead is a colorful, joyous place where all our old family members are constantly partying, springs from an honest representation of Mexican culture that pre-dates Columbus.
This small window into another culture gives us another view of death–a better one, in my opinion–that is defined by celebration, beauty and joyful remembrance rather than fear and sadness. For sure, I’d rather hang out in Gutierrez’s version of the afterlife than any of those presented in the animated films I grew up on (is anyone else still traumatized by Dog-Satan coming to take Charlie to Hell in All Dogs Go to Heaven?)
Book of Life feels more refreshingly authentic than Big Hero 6 because it actually is, having sprung from the mind of actual people of color (producer Guillermo del Toro signed on after being moved by Gutierrez’s nervous but heartfelt pitch). The movie also features a soundtrack by Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla, who, along with Paul Williams, wrote the beautiful original songs “I Love You Too Much” and “The Apology Song” for the movie.
Besides art director Scott Watanabe, there are few people of color in Big Hero‘s key creative roles. This falls in line with an entrenched Disney tradition of exclusively recruiting white dudes to tell stories about non-white cultures. Little Mermaid alums Musker and Clements were handed the reins for Disney’s first black princess story and the result was a trite, forgettable mess (perhaps more disheartening is that Randy Newman was put in charge of the New Orleans-inspired jazz soundtrack, which I guess is not terribly surprising for a company that engaged Elton John to helm the soundtrack for the Africa-based Lion King. If only there were accomplished black musicians from New Orleans of Africa).
I’ll be really excited when Disney is regularly approaching accomplished artists like Gutierrez, who are under-represented in the mainstream. Consider that Frozen-director Jennifer Lee is the first woman to direct a Disney animated feature—and that worked out pretty well.
Big Hero 6
The Book of Life