For this week’s post I decided to go back to animation. I had read that Lee Unkrich was leaving Pixar. Unkrich is better known now than he was at the beginning of Pixar, but he’s been there for their entire history. The canonical three directors on Pixar’s Mount Rushmore are John Lasseter, Pete Docter, and Andrew Stanton. But Unkrich would almost certainly be the 4th face there. This week’s films are:
Lee Unkrich – Toy Story 3 (2010)
Lee Unkrich – Coco (2017)
Unkrich started out as an editor on Toy Story, and is listed as co-director on Toy Story 2, Monster’s Inc, and Finding Nemo, all of Pixar’s early successes. It’s not totally clear what a co-director does on a Pixar film, but they’ve always made it clear that the creative lead of their films are the director. So I imagine the co-director is more of a support role. But beginning with Toy Story 3, Unkrich got put into the normal Pixar directing rotation, along with Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, and Brad Bird. Lasseter stopped directing films after the Disney merger, his last film in the director’s seat being Cars 2. And of course, after revelations about his behavior with female members of the staff, he isn’t with the studio anymore.
And of course, Brad Bird is more of a free agent director, and he’s had successes of his own outside of the studio, and Andrew Stanton has begun directing live action film and television while still completing films for Pixar. So it’s unclear if Unkrich will work for the studio again, or if he’s just exploring other opportunities, and will return for a film in the future.
But regardless, as one of the big creative influences on one of the most successful studios ever, I thought it would be appropriate to look into his two directing efforts.
Let’s get into it.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
Andy is getting older, and is about to head off to college. Woody and his toy friends are worried, unsure of their position in Andy’s life. When the toys are accidentally put into a donation box for a daycare center, they have to adjust to their new life, while Woody tries to convince them that it’s all a mistake, they’re really wanted. Will Woody be able to convince them and help them find their way home? Or will the toys accept their new life, and leave Andy behind?
This is normally where I’d tell everyone who directed the film, wrote it and starred in it, but you basically know all the names. Some newcomers to this film are Michael Keaton, as a Ken doll, and Ned Beatty, who plays Lotso, the huggable bear.
Animation has a long history of being known as a children’s medium. Of course, this isn’t true. And Pixar has done a lot of work to pull the medium out of that stereotype. And this film, while it has plenty of jokes, also deals with some serious themes, like loss, and death, getting old and finding your place in the world.
The film opens with the toys in the toy box, and they’re making some kind of plan. This of course calls back to the first film, when all the toys are attempting to complete a mission to see what the new toys will be. But it turns sad quickly, when we realize that the toys have hidden Andy’s phone in the toy box so that when it rings, he will search for it. They’re desperately trying to get him to pay attention to them.
Andy is about to go to college, and the toys haven’t been touched in years. Of course, the lore from the first film tells us that the purpose of a toy is to be played with. But these toys have been stuck in the toybox for who knows how long. Their last attempt fails, and Woody, as the leader of the toys, suggests they should prepare for being put into storage. Woody tries to pitch it as a positive. They’ll all be together in the attic, and there’s an old TV there and some Christmas decorations they can socialize with.
Andy’s mother comes in telling him that he must pack for college, by packing everything in either a box for college, a box for the attic, or the trash. This ramps up the tension for the toys, and leads to the entire plot of the film. Woody is placed in the college box, the other toys are placed in a trash bag, but Andy takes them up to the attic. He is interrupted by his sister, and when his mother finds the trashbag, she takes it out front with the other garbage bags.
This creates the major tension in the film. Woody has been placed in a place of privilege, as the only toy allowed to go with Andy to college. And Woody has seen the toys being taken to the attic. But the other toys aren’t willing to trust Woody, as all they know is that they have been taken to the curb to be picked up in the trash.
This is a great example of the complex storytelling that Pixar is willing to make use of. It’s a gamble in a medium that is supposed to be for kids, because this is a challenging plot to follow. But the motivations are simple enough that we can understand where everyone is coming from.
After escaping the garbage truck, the toys decide to get into a donation box for the Sunnyside Daycare center. Woody pleads with them, but they refuse to listen.
And when they arrive at Sunnyside, it seems like a toy paradise. They are met by Lotso Huggable Bear, an older toy, who assures them that at Sunnyside, the kids never get tired of them because every year there are new kids. And they take care of each other.
Woody sees that they are being treated well and decides to return to Andy. But on the way he is intercepted by a young shy girl named Bonnie. At Bonnie’s house, Woody discovers what he’s been looking for, a group of happy toys, being played with constantly. But Woody is completely loyal, and gets the toys help to use the computer and find out how close he is to Andy’s.
Meanwhile, Sunnyside doesn’t turn out to be the kind and caring place it first seemed. Buzz and the other toys are placed in a room with toddlers, who just toss the toys around, put them in the mouths, and generally abuse them. They discover that Lotso is in charge of the entire system, and only allows his preferred toys into the room with the older children. When Buzz objects, Lotso uses his manual to reset him and turn him into an ally.
At this point, the fun kids movie turns into a full-on prison movie. Again, this is a huge gamble, but this team of storytellers makes it work. We can accept Buzz being a villain, and we can accept the terrible things that are happening to these characters we identify with, because Woody is on the outside, and he’s trying to save them.
When Woody is planning to leave Bonnie’s house to return to Andy, he mentions Sunnyside, and the other toys are horrified. He learns the real story of Lotso, along with the audience. Lotso was a toy of a small girl named Daisy, along with a couple of others, including the one telling the story to Woody. Daisy loved her toys very much, but one day on a family picnic, Daisy fell asleep, and her parents forgot to gather up the toys. They were abandoned. But they had a duty to their owner, and managed to make their way back to her. But when they finally arrived, she had new toys. And to make things worse, she even had another Lotso bear. Lotso turned to anger to deal with his pain, and took over the daycare, and installed his own system, ruling with fear and punishment.
At the daycare, the toys are prisoners, Buzz is the guard, and Lotso is the warden. Things seem hopeless, but Woody manages to return in Bonnie’s backpack, and starts to form a plan. The film now morphs from a prison film into a prison break film.
In the tradition of great heist films, we don’t hear the plan before it plays out. All we hear is a description of everything that Woody needs to accomplish to get out of the daycare. The plan is intricate, and not without it’s difficulties, and the filmmakers do a great job of letting us see how it develops from start to finish, allowing our heroes to all make it out to the garbage chute, which will take them out of the building past the wall and resetting Buzz. They aren’t totally successful, and we get a funny sequence of scenes in which Buzz is the Spanish version of himself.
Of course, before they can leave, they need to deal with Lotso, who in this confrontation is betrayed and tossed into the dumpster by his main henchman after Woody reminds them both of Daisy. But as the toys try to get away, Woody has to go back for the little martian toys, who are caught in a dumpster lid. As he frees them, Lotso pulls him in. The other toys go after him to try to save him.
This leads to the last big setpiece of the film, at the town dump. This is where the film takes a really serious turn. The toys are thrown onto a conveyor belt leading to a shredder. They manage to get through that, but then find themselves on another conveyor belt leading to an incinerator.
But there’s no way off this belt. They struggle, they fight, but as they get closer to the belt, they simply accept their fate. They reach out and take each others hands, deciding to meet their end together, as a team.
But the film has one more trick up it’s sleeve. The three martians who have been in this film throughout, were separated earlier, after seeing the giant claw at the dump. Their lore is that they worship the claw as they were originally prizes in a claw machine. As the toys realize that there is no escape, they are suddenly picked up by the giant claw and deposited outside the machine. The martian toys are controlling it.
This raises some pretty intense philosophical discussions about the nature of god and how these martians have discovered how to control their god and not just beg for it to help them, but have actually tamed god and turned it into a tool to achieve their own desires…but that’s an entire dissertation.
In the end, the toys make it home, and prepare for their trip to the attic, except for Woody, who is still going to college. But at the last moment, Woody has an idea. He writes a note on the box, which we can’t see.
As he leaves, Andy stops by a house, with a friend of his mothers. We see a small girl playing there, Bonnie from the earlier scenes where Woody met the new toys. In the scene, Andy offers all of his old toys to her. He introduces each of them to her, and they play together.
The scene serves two purposes. First, we see that Andy is willing to give up his old toys and move on with his life. But from the toy’s perspective, they get the last play session that they always wanted with Andy. This scene is a lot like the scene in the incinerator. Both of them are about saying goodbye, but one is meaningless, and alone, while the other involves a catharsis. The toys aren’t just tossed aside, they are treated with care and love, and given to a young girl who will allow them to fulfill their purpose. It is an incredibly powerful scene that ties up all the themes of the film and makes a great ending to the series.
That is, until Toy Story 4 is released.
Miguel is a young boy living in Mexico to a family of shoemakers. Their family mythology is built around their Great Great Grandmother, Mama Imelda, who was left by her musician husband, and had to raise her daughter herself. She did so by building a shoemaking business that the entire family has participated in since. She forbade music in the house, and all her ancestors followed her lead. But Miguel has the spirit of music within him, and has to practice guitar in secret, idolizing the famous musician Ernesto De La Cruz. But on Dia De Los Muertos, there is a music competition in the square. Will Miguel risk his family finding out about his passion?
The film is directed by Lee Unkrich, and stars a host of Latin American voice actors. The film is steeped in Mexican culture and folklore surrounding the Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. On this holiday, the Mexican people celebrate their ancestors, setting up shrines with their pictures and their favorite things from life. Their belief is that their relatives come to visit them on this night from the spirit world.
The first section of the film sets up a few things about the family. First, that no one is allowed to talk about the musician that left the family. The only evidence that he ever existed is a family picture in which his head is torn out. Second, that no one is allowed to listen to music, play music, or associate with musicians. Finally, that Miguel loves music, and feels like an outsider in his family.
Miguel lives in a multi-generational household, run by his grandmother. Everyone in the family including uncles, aunts, children and so on makes shoes in the family business, and their great grandmother Coco, the daughter of Mama Imelda lives with them as well, though she is beginning to lose her memories.
We see some scenes of Miguel’s daily life. He shines shoes in the town square for the family, and he talks to the musicians that regularly frequent the square. We also learn about his obsession with the musician Ernesto De La Cruz(who we’ll call DLC). DLC is from the same small town as him, and there’s a statue of him in the center of town.
DLC is modeled a bit after Elvis, being a world-famous singer with a lot of film work as well. DLC died in 1942 in a stage accident, which produces an incredibly funny scene, where he’s performing a massive musical number, when a large bell on stage is dropped accidentally by a stage hand.
Miguel has his own little shrine to DLC in a forgotten attic. He has taught himself to play guitar by watching DLC performances and films. He even painted his guitar to look like DLCs, which is themed around Dia de los Muertos.
The film telegraphs something pretty hard here, that perhaps DLC is actually the musician that left Miguel’s family so long ago. All of the clues that we’ve been given fit together here. So it’s no surprise that when Miguel accidentally knocks the torn family picture off the mantle, he realizes it has been folded, and hidden in the frame is DLC’s famous guitar. He makes the connection that DLC must be his great great grandfather, and his path is set.
In a heated moment, Miguel’s grandmother finds his guitar and smashes it, leading him to run away, hating his family. In order to get into the music competition in the square he needs a new guitar, and realizes that DLC’s famous guitar is in the cemetery in his tomb.
But when he steals it, he suddenly realizes that no living person can see him. And there are suddenly various skeletons walking around, some of which look like his old relatives. He meets up with them, and they all realize that he has been cursed and can’t go back without the blessing of a relative in the spirit world.
This sets up the main conflict of the film. Mama Imelda runs the family in the afterlife too, and when she hears what has happened, she offers Miguel the chance to go back, but only on the condition that he never plays music again. When he is sent back immediately upon grabbing the guitar, he realizes that he needs another relative to help him. He gets away and goes on his quest to find DLC, his great great grandfather. He is joined by Hector, a shady spirit who’s trying to sneak past the spirit world guards, and Dante, a neighborhood dog who has followed him into the spirit world.
Hector promises him that he knew DLC in real life and can get him there. This leads to a series of scenes in which Miguel and Hector plot how to get into DLCs big party, while Mama Imelda and the family chase after Miguel with the help of an Alebrije, a spirit guide, this one in the form of a giant cat with wings and horns. All the Alebrije are brightly colored as well, making them unmistakable.
As the film goes on, Miguel learns more about all of his ancestors, not from the memories of his family, but from the people himself. He learns that Imelda loved music, it just hurt too much to continue singing after her husband left her and never returned. He learned that Hector was also a wonderful musician.
We also get more info about the spirit world. We find out that people in the spirit world only live as long as people in the living world remember them. When no one living remembers them, they just fade away. Hector is in danger of this. He just wants to see his daughter one last time, which is why he was trying to sneak into the world of the living.
Eventually, Miguel manages to get into DLC’s party, and introduces himself. DLC is surprised, but accepts him, until Hector arrives. DLC is taken aback, and we learn the truth about Hector. He worked with DLC early in his career as a songwriter. Eventually, Hector wanted to go home to his family, but DLC knew he couldn’t make it without him. He poisoned Hector and he died on the way to the train station. DLC took his guitar, and songbook, stealing all of the songs that would make him famous, including one called Remember Me, which would be his best remembered.
To keep the story quiet, DLC throws Hector into a pit, and does the same to Miguel. In the pit, Hector and Miguel finally put two and two together, and realize that Miguel had it all wrong. Hector is actually his great great grandfather, and in fact wanted to come home to his family, but he couldn’t because he was murdered. Miguel has learned a hard lesson about idolizing celebrities.
Mama Imelda finds them, and confirms the truth, that Hector is his great great grandfather. The characters now have several problems to solve. They have to get to Miguel back to the world of the living before sunrise. He also needs to put back Mama Imelda’s picture on the shrine so that she can visit the world of the living on Dia De Los Muertos. They also need to get to DLC to get Hector’s picture back, so that his picture can also be put up so he can visit Coco, his daughter one last time before she forgets him forever.
This all leads to a big setpiece at the end during DLC’s big Sunrise spectacular special in the Land of the Dead, in which the family succeeds, DLC is exposed as the monster he is, and everything is resolved. But before he leaves, Miguel sees that Hector is about to fade, Coco is forgetting him, just as Imelda is beginning to allow him back into her life. In the scuffle, his picture has been lost, losing his chance to be placed on the altar.
Coco is forced to go back, since it’s sunrise, and desperately runs to his great grandmother, to try to get her to remember. This leads to one of the best final scenes I’ve ever seen in a film. Which we’ll talk about in the Double Feature.
The Double Feature
I have a complicated history with Toy Story 3. When I first saw it, I was going through a rough time in my life. My cat Tiva had recently gotten very sick out of nowhere, and I wasn’t sure what to do. I saw this film in the theaters in the middle of this, and the big themes of loss and giving up the things you love really hit me hard. I sobbed in my seat for the last 30 minutes of the movie.
A month or so later, I had to put my cat to sleep. It was an incredibly difficult time for me, and I haven’t watched this movie since then. I’ve thought about it a few times, but never quite gone there.
Watching it this time, I only cried for the last 10 minutes or so of the film. It still hit me hard, but not quite as hard.
Coco was different. I had never seen this film before. It’s themes cover things like appreciating your family, and how strong those bonds can be, and fixing mistakes.
In the final scene, Miguel takes DLC’s guitar, which is actually Hector’s guitar again and runs to Coco. He tries to tell her about Hector, but she doesn’t respond. He pulls out the guitar. By now, his family has found him. He begins to play “Remember Me” to her, which he now knows was a song Hector wrote for her when he left and sang to her frequently.
When he’s done with the song, she goes from almost catatonic, to lucid for the first time in a long time. She begins happily and eagerly telling her family about her father, how he used to play that song for her when she was a child. She pulls a diary out of the drawer.
I had been crying a bit during this entire scene, but this was the moment where I lost it. Because even though she respected her mother’s wishes to not talk about music or her father, she still kept all his letters, and the part of the picture that was torn. She respected her mother, but she still loved her father.
It was the most beautiful ending to a film I’ve seen in a very long time. Miguel had been struggling the entire film to be allowed to play music in the family, and to do it, he needed to go back to the root of the problem and heal those wounds. Along the way, he discovered that his great great grandfather was actually his idol all along.
Everything in the film is so perfectly crafted so when we get to that final scene, it’s all payoff for the struggles the characters have gone through up to that point.
I’m still in the middle of writing my dissertation, and while December was super productive, January has not been so kind. I’ve been struggling getting things done, while also searching for a job and doing some interviews.
That is to say, I’m considering taking a hiatus from the blog until my dissertation is done. That’s likely around the end of February. I haven’t fully decided that yet, but I’m definitely going to move to an every other week schedule for now. So there won’t be a post next week for sure. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep that schedule, but I have to start working on Saturdays, and I usually spend all day Sunday writing this blog, which can sometimes extend to 4000 words. That’s a lot of writing, when I want to put down around 10000 words per week on my dissertation. I might just need a break from the blog for now to recharge on Sundays.
But if I do take a break, I won’t be gone for long, and with luck, the Criterion streaming service promised will be up by the time I’m ready to come back.