Disney does Mexico
A critical look at COCO
Disney-Pixar recently released the first official trailer for their upcoming film, COCO. At first glance, COCO promises to be a visually stunning film full of color and life (or rather, death). The film focuses on El Día de los Muertos—a Mexican holiday in which families honor their dead relatives by setting up elaborate altars that are filled with food offerings, flowers, pictures, and items that represent the departed souls. In the film, we follow the journey of 12-year old Miguel as he seeks to fulfill his dream of becoming a musician, and, through a series of unprecedented events, ends up in a family reunion in the Land of the Dead. As exciting as that sounds, and despite the initial excitement of finally having more diversity in animated films, COCO appears to fall short of offering the viewer anything novel.
First of all, it is necessary to understand the significance of El Día de los Muertos. The Mexican holiday can be traced back to pre-colonial traditions practiced by indigenous groups such as the Nahuas, Mexicas, and Mayans. Even though El Día de los Muertos is rooted in pre-colonial religious belief systems, it also incorporates catholic beliefs that were brought to Mexico during the colonial era. Because of this, the celebration is very important to the country’s past and present. It is an incredibly important holiday because it is the active practice of indigenous traditions and thus, it is the preservation of Mexican Indigenous Culture. In fact, in 2003, UNESCO proclaimed Día de Los Muertos as a part of the Cultural Heritage of Humanity— highlighting the importance of the holiday not only to Mexico, but to the world.
As a result of the UNESCO designation, Día de Los Muertos has gained a wider appreciation in other countries, including the United States. So, it comes as no surprise that Disney has taken the holiday as its main subject for their 2017 release. What is a bit surprising, however, is that COCO is set to be released just three years after the Golden Globe nominated film, Book of Life premiered. Book of Life, an animated film that also took El Día de Los Muertos as its subject, was produced and directed by Guillermo del Toro and Jorge Gutierrez—both of whom are Mexican. In contrast, COCO is directed by Lee Unkrich and produced by Darla K. Anderson, both American filmmakers. Both Unkrich and Anderson have produced very successful films including Toy Story, Monsters inc., and A Bug’s Life —all of which are films based on complete fiction, which begs the question; can they successfully capture the essence of such an important, and real, holiday in their film? Also, it’s important to remember that a part of Book of Life’s success was the legitimacy it enjoyed for being produced by renowned and respected Mexican filmmakers. COCO walks a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Let us not forget, that following the success of this film, it will be white people who are celebrated. And it will be white people who profit from this celebration.
Perhaps what disturbs me most about COCO is the level of insensitivity that has accompanied the film since it’s inception. In fact, when disney first announced that it was going to release a Día de Los Muertos film, they simultaneously tried to trademark the holiday, and the phrase “El Día de los Muertos.” They greedily attempted to mold a complexity of traditions and practice into a profit machine. Of course, there was a completely justifiable uproar from the Latinx community, which forced Disney to withdraw its trademark filing. But the damage was done. As a Mexicana, I remember hearing about the trademark attempts and I was completely disgusted. Disgusted that Disney would try to commodify and sell a holiday that ties us to our indigenous ancestors.
Yet, I shouldn’t have been so surprised at Disney’s actions, because they are simply a reflection of a general trend to make Día de los Muertos a mainstream holiday. It is not uncommon to walk out on Halloween and run into a hipster who’s trying to be edgy, dressed as a Día de los Muertos skeleton, or who has a sugar skull tattooed on their thigh. Día de Los Muertos is being exploited for its visual appeal while it is also rendered as the defacto tradition for understanding Mexican culture. As a result it’s already beginning to assume a commodified position beside margaritas, sombreros and Cinco de Mayo
All of this being said, COCO does not appear entirely irredeemable. In fact, I might succumb to the temptation and go watch it myself, but that is mainly because I am hungry to see my culture represented in films. Still, we cannot look at this film and call it diverse or representative of a culture just because it is centered on a Mexican holiday. We must understand this film in context and recognize how, ultimately, it is film driven by profit. And while I do think that it is important to diversify Disney films, it is lazy and problematic to do a film centered on Día de los Muertos without fully understanding its value beyond the visual appeal. Día de los Muertos is much more than colorful skulls and bright flowers; it is the preservation of a culture, it is the constant survival of indigenous traditions. And unless Disney plans to donate some of the profits to indigenous communities in Mexico, COCO has no purpose other than to inject some pretend diversity into Disney films.
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