Warning: Major spoilers for both films in this posts.
If the story is strong and the narrative is tight, then I will overlook most other shortcomings that a movie might have. Explosions, CGI and Jerry Bruckheimer-isms do nothing for me. Give me good story and characters that are well developed enough and I will go wherever the director takes me.
A cohesive narrative that honors the traditions behind the film is a must. An archetypical narrative that lays out a resonating story without shoving the metaphors down your throat is important when judging a film.
One of these movies does an epically fine job at this and the other could have been amazing but kowtowed to current trends in movie making. It didn't have to.
Coco Is A Triumph
Full disclosure, I'm crazy about Coco. I've seen it three times and I'll go again. It's so damn good, here's why:
Paying tribute without botching it up. Coco is steeped in two traditions. The first is the influence of Japanese children's films like Spirited Away and the Japanese inspired Kubo and the Two Strings. Both of these films are incredible and Disney-Pixar does it's best to contribute to the tradition of this style without ripping it off completely. A child ventures into the underworld/spirit realm to save their parents/ancestors. Coco draws inspiration without flagrant plagiarism.
The second influence is, of course, the Mexican tradition of Dia De Los Muertos. The film could have easily ventured into cultural appropriation and bad taste but it stays classy and you can get a sense of the care and respect the creators of Coco gave to its cultural influence.
It just gets it RIGHT. I grew up more American than Mexican but I had plenty of pinata parties as a kid and have eaten my share of tamales for Christmas. Everyone I have spoken to with Latino origins has said that they got the culture and tradition spot on. It really couldn't have been better, to the shoe attacks from the grandmother to the fiery temper of Imelda. Any further and it could go outside its lane (i.e. the character of El Macho from Despicable Me 2) and any less and it would be criticised for not going full Latino.
Clever, subtle use of metaphor. Naming Miguel's dog Dante was a fun literary reference by the writers of Coco. This is in reference to Dante Alighieri of The Divine Comedy, an exploration of the underworld. In the famous poem, Dante himself is the reader's guide through the land of the dead.
It's not a huge reveal to anyone familiar with literature but it's a nice gesture that the creators of Coco respect the intellect of the audience.
Cool Easter Eggs- If you're looking, you can see clear hints that Hector, the shabbily dressed huckster who's trying to cross over to the land of the living is Miguel's true relative. In his living picture, Hector has a dimple on his left cheek.
You can also see that Hector has a gold tooth, just like the one on Ernesto's guitar.
So the guitar originally belonged to Hector, but Ernesto stole it after he poisoned him.
A tight, cohesive archetypical narrative. The hero's journey in Coco is done beautifully. Miguel is a young boy who wants to be a musician but his family will not allow it. In a gesture of defiance, Miguel steals the guitar of famous musician Ernesto De La Cruz, who he believes is his great, great grandfather. Stealing from the dead is a straight shot into the land of the dead in Coco and so Miguel journeys through to find Ernesto De La Cruz so he could come back to the land of the living, get a blessing from his hero AND get the approval to become a musician in defiance of his family's wishes.
It's clear, clean and linear. Miguel sets out with the idea that he will follow his dream no matter what the cost, but along the way, he discovers the true meaning of Dia De Los Muertos and grows to learn the value of family and honoring his tradition. The family itself learns to resolve the conflict inherent in its irrational ban on music caused by the deep trauma over the loss of grandma Coco's father.
Check this out, Mama Imelda's alibreje Papita isn't just a cool looking cat/bird with wings. Papita is a creature that represents the tyrannical mother.
Pepita is a reorganized Griffin, a just 50% more cat than bird. Pepita is also a representation of Tiamat, the dragon from the Enuma Elish, the Mesopotamian creation myth.
Tiamat is the tyrannical dragon of Chaos who is slain by Marduk, her son. Notice that Pepita is always being ridden by Mama Imelda, Miguel's great, great grandmother.
In many hero stories, the lead protagonist falls into the water on his way to redemption. In Coco Miguel falls into the water twice. The first time, he is rescued by Ernesto De La Cruz. The first fall is in shallow water and his rescue is simple, Ernesto also turns out not to be Miguel's true relative, but the man who murdered his real great, great grandfather, Hector.
The second time Miguel falls into the water he is thrown into a deep well by Ernesto. This time, he learns the reality of the situation and realizes that Hector is his true relative. Miguel has tempered his resolve to pay respect to his ancestors and is willing to sacrifice his desire to be a musician to save Hector. He is rescued by Imelda and Pepita, reconciling his conflict with the positive aspect of the feminine.
You will cry. When Miguel plays the song "Remember Me" for his mama Coco, her fading memories of her father return to her.
I happen to think that this was inspired by a viral video of an elderly man who is in the late phases of dementia who achieves a moment of lucidity when he hears the music of his youth.
The scene is incredibly moving. If the near universal response to a movie is "I cried" then you have found a film which connects on a deep level with a large number of people and simultaneously doesn't come off as contrived and cliqued.
The Movie That Could Have Been Great
If you judge a movie simply based on huge, epic moments that puts butts into seats, The Last Jedi does a fine job. When judge simply as a film, it's a confused, frustrating exercise in how not to tell a story.
Star Wars is pretty important to me, but it's not my religion. I'm not some jaded fanboy looking to say how "I could do it better" I will go through it's problems as objectively as possible and judge by its merits and faults.
This is Luke Skywalker, handle with caution- I can buy that Luke turned into a hermit. The same thing happened to Obi-Wan and Yoda. I can also get that he disconnected himself from The Force. What doesn't fit into the Star Wars pantheon is his handling of Rey. Luke was an impatient, often frustrated youth who became the unlikely hero, but nothing about his character ever indicated that he would become a helpless, cantankerous dick.
Mark Hamill himself had problems with how his character was handled in the film. Saying he had to play Luke Skywalkers brother. He later retracted his statements ( probably because Disney said so), but I would listen to Mark Hamill when it comes to telling the story of Luke Skywalker's swan song.
As it stands, it is now canon that the greatest hero in the Star Wars universe gave up, disconnected himself from The Force and at the last minute astroprojected himself to death.
So, that's how you're going to handle Luke? Okay, I'm with you as long the film doesn't pander to me.
...But It's really pandering- Look, I understand that it's Star Wars and you need to appeal to the lowest common denominator, but do you need a useless subplot about income inequality?
I despise the Canto Bight subplot. The entire Rose and Finn subplot about the "master codebreaker" is unjustifiably bad. Finn and Rose have two jobs in the movie:
- Find the master codebreaker in order to deactivate the tracker on the Star Destroyer tracking the Rebellion
- Destroy the Battering Ram Cannon that will break down the massive door shielding the Rebellion from the Empire
They fail at both, and neither event affects the outcome of the film. All it does is introduce Benicio Del Toro to the film who winds up being a snitch to the Empire. And don't tell me that the Empire needed Benicio to tell them about the Rebellion escaping. That means that the Finn and Rose subplot made things worse.
The truth of the matter is that the film focused so much on Rey and Kylo Ren that they needed to give Finn something to do. It had to involve BB-8 to sell more toys and have a bit of social justice added to it because Donald Trump.
I don't buy the Rose and Finn romance for a second. People are falling all over themselves over Rose, I think she was less engaging than the Porgs.
Plus, I can't shake the feeling that Rian Johnson took a perfectly good set up by JJ Abrams and then botched it up. Look, there were lots of good material to work with in The Force Awakens.
I thought you could really do something with the Captain Phasma character. She seemed really interesting and you could have carried out a great final duel with Finn. Look, she's even a strong female character!
Nope, turns out she was easily killed and she was probably racist.
Snoke was a pretty awesome villain
He offered up so many questions. Who was he? How did he become so powerful with the Force? Who trained him? What's his relationship with the Brotherhood of Ren? How did he use Rey and Kylo's minds to build a mind meld? He's so interesting, I hope we learn more about this villain.
Let's cut him in half to create an EPIC MOVIE MOMENT.
I'll grant you that the moment was pretty intense. It also begs the question of how he could be tricked by his pupil if he was such a powerful force user? In any case, what the hell? Bye, Snoke. We hardly knew ye.
It seems like we are disposing of perfectly good characters in order to make room for two main characters. That's a pity because The Force Awakens was set up with such great potential for The Last Jedi to tell a great story that was filled with epic moments and simultaneously be a high-quality film.
Rey's weird, wacky descent into the underworld
Rey falls into a well much like Miguel does in Coco. She is faced with a problem about who her parents are and she is going deep into the darkness to find out what she needs to know moving forward.
Once she enters the cave she finds... many Reys. Her person is distributed throughout time linearly moment by moment. These moments lead up to the Rey at the front of the line. This 'first Rey" looks into the darkness to find... her own reflection.
I Call Bullshit
Rian Johnson had no idea how to pull this archetypical narrative off so he just said "Screw it, let's pull off a cool CGI effect and pretend that it has a deep meaning." It's so patronizing that it's painful.
Don't take a learned, experienced bunch of movie nerds like Star Wars fans for granted. You had no idea what it meant because at the core it's meaningless.
Any cool things to look for on a second viewing?
Well, Luke's footprints don't leave salt trails on the ground and Kylo Ren's does. Kinda cool, but not really.
As I said before, I will overlook inconsistencies as long as you're telling me a cohesive story that fits a strong narrative. Rian Johnson dropped the ball in this regard.
- Space Bombs- Yes, I know it's Science Fiction, but the universe in which the film exists must be consistent. There's a reason that Leia didn't fall like a rock when she was blown into space... because it's space. You never see Rebel Bombers in any other iteration of Star Wars because without downward propulsion, those bombs would float around and knock into each other. I had no sympathy for Rose's sister dying because space bombs would have killed her anyway.
- The Praetorian Guard Battle- I admit, this scene was cool. It was problematic, however. Imagine that you are Secret Service and your job is to protect Donald Trump. If Mike Pence kills him, is your reaction to kill Mike Pence? I mean, that's your boss now! Arrest him, signal for help, but kill him? Please, you're telling me not one of those Praetorian guards weren't asking "Who's writing my checks now?"
- The Bloody Dialogue- No excuse for this. Here's some gems:
"Ohh, I like this!" as Rey is firing from The Millenium Falcon
"You were always scum." "Rebel Scum."- Captain Phasma and Finn. Yeesh...
"He's a real troublemaker," "Yes, he is." "I like him." "Me too." Leia and Holdo. There was just a god damned mutiny and THAT'S the reaction?
"What's your story, Roundy?" I can't go on. It's really bad. While there's some decent philosophical offerings from Luke and Yoda, they are lost in a sea of banality.
I don't want to bash everything about The Last Jedi. Adam Driver acted the hell out of his part and the romantic/adversarial relationship between Rey and Kylo should be interesting to unfold in the next movie
.I think that in an attempt to make The Last Jedi HIS movie, Rian Johnson sacrificed the fundamentals of a cohesive story. The result is that the new Disney trilogy could have matched or at least come close to matching the original trilogy and now it will be classified somewhere in the gulf between the original trilogy and the awful prequels.
That's a shame to me.
The Last Jedi is endemic to our current movie culture
Watch this video by The Nerdwriter. The gist is that Hollywood has basically sacrificed story for epic moments and it's not a positive trend.
Rian Johnson is doing his job. He's putting butts into seats and filling the movie with epic moments. The story is subservient to the moments. Coco is proof that you can tell a beautiful story without sacrificing popularity. The Last Jedi is the movie that 2017 Hollywood had to make.
It doesn't mean that we have to like it.
Tell me what you think? Take a swig from the teet of this thing while your at it.