'Coco' Follows A Boy's Journey In A Technicolor Afterlife : Pop Culture Happy Hour The 2017 movie Coco is about a Mexican boy named Miguel who has an adventure on Día de los Muertos, a holiday dedicated to remembering the dead. He finds himself in the Land of the Dead, where he learns about the importance of memory and how we tell the stories of our families. In this encore episode, we revisit our conversation about the excellent Disney-Pixar film.
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'Coco' Follows A Boy's Journey In A Technicolor Afterlife

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'Coco' Follows A Boy's Journey In A Technicolor Afterlife

'Coco' Follows A Boy's Journey In A Technicolor Afterlife

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The 2017 Disney-Pixar movie "Coco" is about a Mexican boy named Miguel who has an adventure on Dia de los Muertos, a holiday dedicated to remembering the dead.


BENJAMIN BRATT: (As Ernesto, singing) Remember me. Though I...


He finds himself in the land of the dead, where he learns about the importance of memory and how we tell the stories of our families. And like the heroes of a lot of quests, all he really wants is to go home and follow his dreams.

HOLMES: The film was directed by "Toy Story 3's" Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, who's been at Pixar for a decade but gets his first directing credit here. I'm Linda Holmes.

THOMPSON: And I'm Stephen Thompson. In this encore episode of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, we're talking about "Coco." So don't go away.


HOLMES: Welcome back. We already met NPR music's Stephen Thompson. Also joining us is Glen Weldon of the NPR arts desk. Hi, Glen.


Hey, Linda.

HOLMES: And joining us from NPR west from our Code Switch team, our pal Shereen Marisol Meraji. Hi, Shereen.


HOLMES: So good to have you back.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Good to be back.

HOLMES: Stephen, I want to ask you first what you thought. You have watched many a Pixar movie.

THOMPSON: I have. I've seen almost all of them if not all.

HOLMES: Even for this show, you've watched many a Pixar movie.

THOMPSON: I've even watched "The Good Dinosaur."

HOLMES: You have.

WELDON: Yeah, oof.

HOLMES: How did you feel about "Coco?"

THOMPSON: I really loved it. I think it starts a little slowly. It does a lot of very patient world building. And it took me a little while to get fully swept into the story. But at the same time, that worldbuilding is so lovely and so gorgeously, artistically rendered that it's easy to kind of get swept up not only in the gorgeous imagery in the land of the dead, but the gorgeously vibrant day-to-day life that the film starts out in.


THOMPSON: I've heard this movie described as a love letter to Mexico. I think that's kind of a lazy shorthand for this kind of thing, like, oh, it's a love letter to blank.

HOLMES: Right. Sure.

THOMPSON: But it is an incredibly loving portrait of Mexican culture that doesn't seem to be taking a lot of shortcuts.


THOMPSON: And as such, it takes a while for it to fully sweep you into the story. But by the time it gets to the end, the emotional payoff of this film is this enormous wallop.


THOMPSON: It kind of turns the emotional arc of "Up" upside down...


THOMPSON: ...With the amount of crying you do in the first 15 minutes of "Up" is the amount of crying...

HOLMES: Right.


THOMPSON: ...You do in the last 15 minutes.

HOLMES: Right. Exactly.

THOMPSON: But think about how many movies have these terrible third act problems. To me, this movie didn't have those...


THOMPSON: ...Because there's so much emotion in it.

HOLMES: Yeah. I want to ask you, Shereen, how you felt about "Coco." Are you a Pixar movie person generally?

MERAJI: I loved "Up."


MERAJI: But I don't - I wouldn't call myself a Pixar movie person.

HOLMES: OK. So how did you like "Coco?"

MERAJI: (Laughter) I have to say, I went in a little bit nervous because I know - for me, you know, when you put a movie like this in the hands of a big studio that's headed up by white guys and it's delving into a whole other culture and world, I worry that stuff is going to, you know, seem off. And I have to say, there weren't any cringe-worthy moments for me.

WELDON: (Laughter).

MERAJI: I was so charmed. Everything was done just right. The mix of Spanish and English in the film felt really organic and not clunky or cheesy. It felt real. They used Mexicanisms like no manches and hijole, like very Mexican slang, Mexican and Spanish. And I loved it. I loved the way Mexican art was used and woven into the narrative, you know, papel picados, which are those colorful banners made of tissue paper. You see them in all kinds of Mexican celebrations. Well, they're used to help tell the story in the beginning. And alebrijes, which are these magical, mystical animal creatures that are made out of paper-mache. They're folk art. They're carved of wood. They come to life in the land of the dead as these spirit animals. There's all these references to Frida Kahlo. She has this hilarious cameo in the land of the dead.


HOLMES: She does.

MERAJI: As its director-choreographer. And then, there's Ernesto de la Cruz, who, when I saw him, I thought of the Mexican singer Vicente Fernandez - aka Chente. You know, he's super famous and beloved in Mexico. He stars in all these old-timey films. He wears those mariachi uniforms that are, like, bedazzled with the gold-threaded sombreros. I was just like, man, this is so well-done. And I have to say, Stephen, it was so well-done that tears were falling down my face from the moment it started.

THOMPSON: Oh, wow.

MERAJI: It made me so emotional, you know? Like, it was like, wow. This is on it.

HOLMES: One of the things I really - and this is sort of what Shereen is getting at is - one of the things I really admired about it is, very often, when you get a studio that is, as Shereen said, run by a lot of white guys, when they are trying to kind of - we're going to add diversity to our project...

MERAJI: Right.

HOLMES: ...You will get a Latino kid who is kind of a generally Latino kid.

WELDON: Right.

HOLMES: And he will be named Miguel. And he will speak Spanish. And he will call his...

THOMPSON: Grandmother abuelita (laughter).

MERAJI: Right. Right.

HOLMES: Yeah, his grandmother abuelita, but that will be about as far as it goes.


HOLMES: And one of the things I really love about this is that it is so specifically about this Mexican kid and his Mexican family, as opposed to seeing kind of all Latino kids as similar to each other from the standpoint of a white, American studio. Do you know what I mean?


HOLMES: It sees him and his family through a very specific cultural lens. And it really allows their story to come up through that lens. And I love the fact that Dia de los Muertos in this movie is a holiday. But it's not, like, exoticized.

WELDON: Right.

HOLMES: It's treated as any holiday that most - you know, most holidays in many cultures are about family and memory and tradition and all that stuff. And it doesn't feel like any part of this is sort of pointing out this holiday as, you know, odd or - it's treating it as a holiday and why it's important to this kid and this family. The movie goes quite deep into why this particular celebration means so much to people. What did you think about it, Glen?

WELDON: I liked it fine. You know, I am a mildly colorblind individual. And for two hours, I didn't feel it.



WELDON: It got through to me because it just is so - it's just a feat of visual design. It's fantastic and striking. And, you know, the performances from actors I am aware of and those I am not all really sold it. And speaking from this outsider perspective, I mean, you can tell when a movie's cultural outreach, its cultural themes are disingenuous. You can tell. And it didn't feel that here, felt like this was conceived from the ground up to be what it is. And that's good. I do put this as lesser Pixar for me because - all to do with the script and the story. This plot is so dense in a way that reads to me like written by committee, like people being afraid that...

HOLMES: Interesting.

WELDON: ...The audience isn't going to get it. You know, something like this happened in "Wreck-It Ralph," which is a Disney movie. Disney is much more prone to this kind of narrative piling on than Pixar historically has been. Pixar tells a simple story, simply told. And Disney tends to - like, there's the thing about the Day of the Dead, all the machinations and how that works. Then we get what Miguel needs and then his plans to get it, which have to change at the midway point. And then there's a talent contest. And then there's a time limit. It's a lot.


WELDON: It's just a lot.

HOLMES: Yeah. I did think - you know, very late in the film, there's kind of a final turn when it feels like you're at a conclusion. And then you remember that there's one more thing...



HOLMES: ...That they kind of have to do. And when that piece started, I felt like, I'm ready for it to conclude...

WELDON: Exactly.

HOLMES: ...A little more tightly. I agree with that.

WELDON: We've talked about the last 15 minutes. The last 15 minutes in wherein all that plot, that infrastructure, falls away completely - I think, collapses completely - so that this film can reach out of the screen...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

WELDON: ...Grab your tear ducts and milk them for all they are worth.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).


WELDON: And I felt that reaching. I mean, I - that to me felt like this film - those last 15 minutes just amp up and amp up and pile on until it becomes almost funny how achingly, how desperately they're trying to milk a very specific - an emotional reaction that you can kind of feel working on you. You can feel them doing it.

HOLMES: Yeah. Yeah.

THOMPSON: Yeah. But it works I mean, it worked for me.

WELDON: Yeah. It didn't for me. But, I mean, like that's...

THOMPSON: You are made of stone.


MERAJI: It actually didn't work for me in the end. It worked for me throughout, if that makes any sense. I mean, I just felt like it was so - I could relate so much to the story even though I'm not Mexican. I grew up in a Puerto Rican household. But I had a great-grandmother, Chucha (ph) - and in this, it's Coco, the great-grandmother - who was in a wheelchair. She had white hair. She barely, you know, could speak. And when she did, she only had memories of the past. I mean, I was just like, wow, this movie got me, you know? And it got me throughout. And I just - that just tugged at my heartstrings and, you know, tugged at my tear ducts or whatever...



MERAJI: ...Throughout, you know, not - and, actually, I have to agree with Glen. It felt a little bit piled on at the end...


MERAJI: ...With emotion

WELDON: Did you guys think it was that funny? I mean, I would much rather - this is going to sound glib. But, I mean, like, more jokes would not have hurt this thing. I didn't think the dog worked. I didn't think the dog was that funny.

HOLMES: I mean, in fairness to this movie, you often say that.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

WELDON: I do. I do.

HOLMES: By which I only mean to say there's a sliding scale...


HOLMES: ...Of how much jokes matter to people in a movie like this. You are a person to whom they're very, very important. And you want lots of them. I felt like it was an OK number. I will say, I think the movie was more clever than funny. I liked the fact that the dog is a much lighter touch than a lot of the kind of animal sidekicks that have very specific kind of...

THOMPSON: Oh, by lighter touch you mean it's less pounding you with jokes.

HOLMES: Absolutely. It's less pounding you with silliness or adorableness.


WELDON: Right.

HOLMES: The dog feels specific to me.


HOLMES: The dog doesn't feel like a comic actor made into a dog...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: ...As often sidekicks do in movies like this.

WELDON: Oh, that's true. That's a good point.

THOMPSON: Well put.

HOLMES: It really feels like the dog is a dog.

MERAJI: Glen, I saw this movie in south LA at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall. Ninety-nine percent of the theater was made up of Latino families. And I got to say, people were laughing. People laughed at the grandma, whether she was, you know, feeding me Miguel more tamales when he wasn't hungry or throwing her chancla at people. People loved this in the theater. They were laughing, and they were laughing a lot. So maybe this movie just wasn't made for your particular sensibilities.

WELDON: Absolutely. I welcome it. I love the feeling of being in a theater and having people laugh at a joke that's not directed at me. That's great. That didn't happen a lot in my theater, but I'm sure it could. I'm sure it will.

HOLMES: Yeah. And I suspect that it's absolutely true that the jokes are funnier the more you're steeped in the references that they're making. I agree with Glen that it has fewer jokes than a lot of these movies. It has fewer jokes than a "Toy" Story movie. It has fewer jokes, I would say, than a "Cars" movie. But I was OK with that because I think Shereen is right, that even if - I did not cry at the end. Everybody else in the theater with me - I will tell you, I was listening to a lot of sobbing, but I didn't cry at the end. But I was very moved by it throughout. And I was struck at the beginning. I was trying to figure out why I instantly took to this kid. I still am not really sure, but I instantly just wanted to hang out with him. And I liked the rendering of him as kind of a regular kid in jeans and a white shirt just kind of kicking around town. I very much liked that. I like some of the performances a lot. It was really funny to me that Jaime Camil, who plays Rogelio on "Jane The Virgin," is the very kind of normal father of the kid rather than playing...

THOMPSON: Playing Ernesto de la Cruz.

HOLMES: ...Ernesto de la Cruz, which would have been so him, you know what I mean? I really, really enjoyed it a lot.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, I have a slight nitpick about the movie. It's very different from Glen's. I felt like in the first couple acts of this movie, it seems to be building up this kind of false choice between family and music and which will he choose? And that I found so much less engaging than this kind of bigger, warmer thing that anyone can hook into if they've ever lost someone they care about as it becomes more and more universal and less about this kind of obviously false choice...

HOLMES: I agree with you. That's a great point. I think that's right.

THOMPSON: ...The more interesting it is.

MERAJI: I actually think what's interesting about that family-first thing is - and what I took away from it - is that families aren't perfect. They keep secrets so they don't have to relive trauma. But that trauma eventually gets passed down in other ways. And in the case of the Rivera family, the fact that they're not allowed to or listen to or play music because their great-great-grandfather was a musician who was thought to have abandoned his family to follow his musical dreams, that trauma gets passed down from generation to generation because of silence.


MERAJI: I don't know if anyone else got that from it, but...

HOLMES: No, I think that's right. And I think it's to the movie's credit that it eventually kind of gets past that idea that what he's choosing between is family and music. What were you going to say, Glen?

WELDON: Well, just exactly that. I mean, that is an example of this film loading itself up with more stuff that it doesn't need just to have an obstacle to overcome when there's already plenty of stuff. It's just a simple quest narrative. It doesn't need all this stuff. But...


MERAJI: I like it. I love it. I got to say - I mean, there were so many things, like the - when Hector was trying to cross from the land of the dead to the land of the living, and he doesn't have the right, quote-unquote, "documentation" or whatever, right? In his case, there's not a picture of him on an ofrenda, so he can't visit his relatives in the land of the living on Dia de los Muertos. And so he tries to, like, run across the, quote-unquote, "border," and he's crawling through the marigold petals and the, you know, the Border Patrol agents is what I saw them as...

HOLMES: Yeah, yeah.

MERAJI: ...Grab him. I was just like - I could not watch that scene and divorce it from what's happening in the real world. And, you know, in my mind, those marigolds turned into sand and that bridge was the Sonoran Desert. And, you know, I was having all of these feelings and emotions in that scene and I liked that. I liked the layered aspect to it. And maybe I had that when I was watching it and someone else didn't. It meant nothing to them. But I liked that I could have that.

HOLMES: Yeah. I will say, when I talk about the movie being more clever than funny, one of the other things I really like is how they animate the skeletons, how they animate the people in the land of the dead, it reminds me actually a little bit of some of the ways that they played around with the body of the snowman in "Frozen," how he would, like, go to pieces and they would throw pieces of him all over the place. But I think this is better than that. It's a - there's a cleverness to the way that bones come back together and fall apart. And I found it very moving in that regard.


HOLMES: We want to know what you think about "Coco." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @PCHH. We'll see you all tomorrow for our annual pop culture predictions episode.


MERAJI: (Singing) Remember me.


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