Digging into Disney’s “Day of the Dead” Problem

Last week after word got out that Disney was seeking to trademark “Día de los Muertos” in preparation for its 2015 release of a Pixar animated feature inspired by the traditional Mexican holiday, several online communities were outraged. The backlash kicked into high gear when cartoonist and illustrator Lalo Alcaraz shared a poster of a Godzilla-like Mickey Mouse under the words, “It’s coming to trademark your cultura.” [Go here to see Alcaraz's cartoon via Pocho.com.]

Social media has always kept Disney in check, and this time is no different. Latino Rebels, an online community that has done a terrific job of tracking Disney’s depiction of Latino culture, helped handle and report on the groundswell of public outcry over the last few weeks. After several petitions and pressure, Disney announced last Tuesday that they would withdraw the trademark filing, claiming that it was no longer necessary since they had changed the title of the fim.

In an interview with Cartoon Brew, William Nericcio, a scholar specializing in the representation of Latinos in American pop culture and author of Tex[t]-Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the “Mexican” in America, said, “[Hollywood's] attitude towards culture is like a pelt hunter from the 19th century. They need the skin that people recognize and value in order to sell a project that will yield predictable profits.”

Nericcio acknowledges that Pixar and Disney face an uphill battle in producing their Day of the Dead feature, which is to be directed by Toy Story 3 helmer Lee Unkrich: ”I think it’s wonderful that Pixar is working on a Mexico, cultural-based project. But it’s a public relations nightmare. They’re not really equipped to talk about other cultures in a way that shows even the slightest sensitivity.”

While Nericcio supports the critical eye cast by social media, he does express concerns over extreme backlash. “The downside of it is, companies like Disney could get scared off of projects that might be focused on Latin American culture, just because they got burned,” he explains. Ultimately, the appeal of a Dia de Los Muertos film is undeniable; the imagery connected to the celebration is so lush, providing a palette that would inspire any moviegoer. “It’s good business to green light a project on la cultura Mexicana. Everybody’s loving the wrestlers, the icons, the color, the exoticness,” Nericcio says. “But when you have the patent lawyers involved, they come off looking terrible.”

Nericcio, a self-admitted Pixar fan would love to see a Dia de los Muertos animated film, as would so many others. Fortunately, there’s another film on the horizon—Guillermo del Toro and Jorge Gutierrez are currently producing and directing (respectively) their own Day of the Dead-themed feature at Reel FX called The Book of Life, to be released through Fox in October of 2014, more than a year before the Disney-Pixar feature. There’s no word yet whether Mexico-born del Toro and Gutierrez will seek trademarks of their own.


  • just1more

    The main reason for this pushback from the Mexican and Mexican-American communities (including myself): Disney makes all cultures white.

    • z-k

      Same could be said about practically every Japanese animated production, which make every culture presented as nihonified as possible. As well as American productions’ placement of Western values on the rest of the world, where they depict every woman as empowered, every vote as counting, and every underdogs’ voice as echoing from the rooftops.

      The difference being that Japan hasn’t militarily invaded the rest of the world for the past 70+ years to spread their cultural lenses. Or sought to financially own any other cultures’ holidays or rites.

      • http://twitter.com/ChriSobieniak Chris Sobieniak

        Of course I think of a lot of Japanese cartoons where someone who is suppose to be Japanese looks fairly Caucasian anyway.

        • z-k

          Given the phobia over potential whitewashing in media, could this be chalked up to Japanese productions trying to play up to a potential Western audience (not likely, given their insularity); playing to their own native audiences’ sensibilities for foreign chic (I lean towards this view); a grand Caucasian conspiracy over the centuries to eradicate Nihon culture; or some form of Helsinki Syndrome.

          • http://twitter.com/ChriSobieniak Chris Sobieniak

            I suppose we’ll never know!

          • Strepsi

            It is also a complicated but real phenomenon that ALL developed cultures (including Indian, South Asian, and Japanese) privilege lighter skin, and make it aspirational. The number of face creams in Asia that are the same as ours but contain “skin whitening” is mind boggling. Here’s Vaseline skin whitener for men:

  • Bob Harper

    Considering what Disney Corp is doing lately, with this and the whole Brave thing, I wonder who is causing more widespread damage to the Disney name? Them or a couple of performance artists and their grotesque depictions of the man?

  • Uberman5000

    I dunno, all this talk about Dios de la Muertos movies just makes me want to watch a film based off the PC game Grim Fandango. That’d be alright.

    • Abel San

      I have never played that game and I’d also love to watch a film based on it. Those graphics looked sweet.

    • http://twitter.com/LanceBravestar1 Lance Bravestar

      Yeah, but since Disney’s already making this movie, I doubt they’ll make Grim Fandango. Such a pity, too. The game would make a great stop-motion film.

    • MudMarox

      Oh i loved that Game!!! But Disney could never do something with that spirit.

    • MykeTV

      Technically, Disney could use Grim Fandango if they want to. They own the IP.

  • z-k

    “The downside of it is, companies like Disney could get scared off of
    projects that might be focused on Latin American culture, just because
    they got burned,”…

    Racially-based politicking having consequences? One of which being financial (even though not as direct as, say, an IRS audit)?

    Do tell.

    Though Disney trying to envelop a holiday under its copyright auspices seems about as welcoming to a culture as Unicron’s mouth.

    • Ronnie

      Trademark, not copyright- there’s a difference. Trademarks are much more malleable and apply to specific fields- Disney’s trademark would just mean if there was ample room for confusion, they could take someone who released a film with a copycat title to court. That’s a lot different than copyright.

      • z-k

        Considering this is the company that primarily draws its film themes from cultural fairy tales (or as was seen a few months ago, private artists’ takes on those cultural images), it comes across as a little more than chutzpah for them to then apply the umbrella of trademark to a cultural event which seems to do nothing but alienate the targeted demographic in question.

        It would be one thing if it was a specific alteration on a cultural name or holiday that their studio alone could lay claim to, for a specific film in progress – “A Day of the Dead” or some such – or a line of merchandise. But this seems tantamount to their trademarking the 4th of July or Black History Month, with their cabal of entertainment lawyers now having the potential to do what they (inevitably) do best once mention of these words occurs in print or media outside of Buena Vista International or the like.

        Given the company’s track record as of late, it’s not too far out of left field to observe that allowing a pork chop to be hung over sleeping dogs isn’t going to induce them to sit still.

        • timmyelliot

          There is currently is a live “Black History Month” trademark and there have been “4th of July” trademarks as well. As Ronnie said, I think you’re really aren’t getting the concept of trademarks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alex-Dudley/39610885 Alex Dudley

    The fact that Disney was even attempted to trademark the name of a holiday, is pure asinine. If that went through, what’s to stop other companies from trademarking Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and other holidays?

    • Jeff Missinne

      I thought Hallmark already had! OK, all kidding aside; I believe the MPAA has always had a “title registry” where producers could register a title to prevent predatory knock-offs; isn’t that all they really need in the first place? (Of course, back in the days, this was abused too; the Mayers and Zanucks used it to sell and swap titles like “Romeo and Juliet” as if they owned them.) And translating the title…wouldn’t “Day of the Dead” step on George Romero’s toes? (Just wonderin’…)

  • Guest

    How many here are aware of Walt Disney’s Mexican heritage (I’m referring to the man himself)?

    • Pedro

      Espana I believe.

    • http://www.facebook.com/geoff.vv Geoff. W.

      I wasn’t, but its irrelevant in this case anyway

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Sullivan/100001833542564 Matt Sullivan

      He wasn’t. His father was Irish-Canadian and his mother was German-American

  • timmyelliot

    While I don’t pretend to know trademark law, I’ve had to go through trademarking myself.

    Disney trademarking the name for the film is no big deal. “Day of the Dead” has already been trademarked by various other groups for use for gaming machines, tequila and theater productions, (here’s the trademark listing for using “Day of the Dead” for theater: http://tess2.uspto.gov/bin/showfield?f=doc&state=4806:3qy30x.8.16)

    Trademarking for a specific use is a common enough practice for film names. I’m thinking it’s more to avoid mockubuster’s sweeping down and creating market confusion.

    • timmyelliot

      I just noticed that the link I previously gave was “expired.” I guess I can’t link to specific searches. It look like it’s done manually off the main page of the trademark search engine: http://tess2.uspto.gov/bin/gate.exe?f=tess&state=4808:vuj8gj.1.1

    • http://animationanomaly.com/ Charles Kenny

      Absolutely correct.

      Trademarks apply to a film’s title so as to provide legal strength to the studio’s efforts to suppress or stop knock-off merchandise. That’s all.

      That said, you can’t go about your trademark in an idiotic way, which is what Disney appears to have done by being so secretive about the whole saga.

      • timmyelliot

        There’s nothing secretive about it. Filing for a trademark is public.

        What surprises me most, is why is everyone so up-in-arms about this name. I’d think people would howl more when Disney trademarked a common word like “Brave” (with headlines like, ” Disney is stealing our language!”)

        Personally, I think this whole thing is more about people being misinformed on the nature of trademarks. This is just like the whole “Seal team 6″ issue. “Seal Team 6″ was a trademark for many other groups (for watches, books, video games), long before Disney came into the picture.

  • http://twitter.com/spitandspite abel salazar

    “While Nericcio supports the critical eye cast by social media, he does express concerns over extreme backlash. “The downside of it is, companies like Disney could get scared off of projects that might be focused on Latin American culture, just because they got burned,” he explains. ”

    Jajajajajaj (that’s pronounced Hahahha for all my anglo comrades)! I don’t know what this guys credits are or what his business background is but this makes absolutely no sense at all to me.

    The Latin market is ripe for the picking and considering the generally open playing field it’s bad business NOT to delve into this “emerging” (more like ignored) market for such a powerful entity such as Disney. Just follow the money, there’s literally billions of green little reasons to make this happen.

    “Oh no, not a PR disaster!” Cool logic brah

    • opus12

      Here’s the logic, why risk the bad PR? Why have to worry about the hassle of a some group’s perceived offense of what was likely an inadvertent slight? If Disney were a Latin American company and had done the same thing no one would have said a thing. The problem isn’t what Disney did or attempted to do it’s that they aren’t from Latin America.

      • Lou

        How do you trademark something that already belongs to all people, and has done since before Walt Disney was even conceived? Trademarking something implies you are the creator and owner of something. That would be like me trying to trademark Chinese New Year to tie in with my film, “Chinese New Year”. This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard all year (of the snake).

        • http://dailygrail.com/ Red Pill Junkie

          ^This!

          And if you think Mexicans are being oversensitive about this issue, I ask you to view this in a broader context: the traditional ‘Flor de Nochebuena’ (what you guys call Poinsettias, derived from Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico,who introduced the plant into the United States in 1825 [Wikipedia]) is a Mexican flower that was commercially exploited by the Ecke family. And there was even a story some years ago re. an American company claiming copyright for a version of the Mexican national hymn (!).

          So maybe this was an overreaction, but ask yourselves this: How would you feel if a Russian company attempted to trademark the phrase ’4th of July’?

          • Opus12

            The over reaction is exactly my point. Why wouldn’t a company take that type of thing into account when deciding what films to make?
            The over reaction hurts in the long run.
            As for the copyrights, if it’s not legal they won’t be able to do it. Should some Russian company be able to trade mark “4th of July”. Well….good luck to them trying to enforce it. Like the people who own the rights to the “Happy Birthday” song.

          • SurfCity

            Those people get paid every time that song is sung in a movie or TV.

        • opus12

          My comment isn’t about the legality/or lack of, or stupidity of attempting to do it. I don’t disagree with you about that.

          My reply to Salazar was about the reason for the strong reaction and why things like that might/would affect whether American studios would take on further projects that could expose them to cries of sexism, racism….etc…etc… Would they find it worth the hassle and bad PR if they inadvertently did something some group didn’t like.

  • Pedro

    I’ve heard of two other Day of the Dead animated projects besides Disney.

  • http://the-animatorium.blogspot.com/ Natalie Belton

    What Disney trying to trademark or buy out something?! I am completely (not) shocked. Granted, I don’t think I have heard of any other time they or another company tried to gain ownership of an entire holiday. Does this mean the Grinch exists?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Sullivan/100001833542564 Matt Sullivan

    Not one latino person is excited about Disney recognizing their culture? ( Not that I care about being represented in film, I have no culture whatsoever and am better off for it in my opinion ) but if you try and appeal to a particular group, they resent it. If you DON’T try to appeal to any one culture, they also resent it.

    What can you do?

    • http://profiles.google.com/corywgross Cory Gross

      One might argue that if you perceive yourself as having no culture, that is only because your culture is so pervasive and normative that you have no experience of yourself as the Other. A good experiment is to land yourself in another culture for a while. You will probably discover very quickly that you do indeed have one.

  • Mapache

    Well, as a mexican I see no problem what so ever with using the words “Día de los muertos” or “Disney/Pixar: Día de los muertos” as a brand, because I understand how trademarking things work. I know a brand can only be applied to a certain number of products.

    The problem comes from the misconception that the Walt Disney Company is trying to claim property over the holliday itself. And there’s even people who would asume everything Día de muertos-related, traditional clothes, food, etcetera is going to automatically belongto Disney from that moment on. And it’s not only our Joanne and Cletus mexican countreparts’ opinion. It IS a common idea.

    Actually, not only social media but media in general is using the Evil Disney is trying to buy your culture! craze to sell papers and what not; because, I don’t know. Antiyankismo is profitable I guess. It’s kind of embarrazing.

    In the other hand, after watching some mexican themed movies and tv, (not just Sppedy Gonzalez and Baba Louey, I’m talking about recent flicks like The kingdom of the crystal skull or Apocalyto) I kind of understand the fear of Holliwood trying to homogenize its romanticized vision of México and the real thing.

    In this kind of situations I think you can’t win unless you stop trying to be politically correct.

    HOWEVER there’s another very important fact:
    The reason why Disney did back off of their trademarking attempt was not entirelly because of the controversy surrounding it, but due to an actual legal issue with a mexican animated movie with a similar name.

    You can find information here: http://www.unionjalisco.mx/articulo/2013/05/18/ciudadanos/guadalajara/disney-o-metacube-quien-es-dueno-del-dia-de-muertos Notice how the title reads “Who owns día de muertos?”

    • SurfCity

      I call BS on most of your post. There are lots of films already named “Dia de los Muertos.” I made one myself in 2013. The difference? Unlike Walt Disney Company I didn’t have the arrogance to assume that mine was the only one, or that even if it wasn’t that I should trademark the name of a holiday because I made a film about it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.dutch.564 Steve Dutch

    The copyright will last about ten seconds in a challenge. Years ago a beer company tried to trademark “Light” and the case went flatter than their beer. They can trademark it as a movie title, but that’s it. You can’t copyright expressions that are in common use.

    • Anon

      I’m actually an IP lawyer and I totally agree. Then again, copyright law was changed at one point solely because of Disney and Mickey Mouse.

  • http://twitter.com/mexican_wrench Mexican Wrench

    Latinos, seriously. Why are we becoming “those” people?

    • Dave O.

      Not sure what you mean by that, seriously. You pro or anti?

  • http://profiles.google.com/corywgross Cory Gross

    “Día de los Muertos” is too long anyways. They need to shorten that up to a single adjective.

  • tbok1992

    I’m just sad they’re not making a Grim Fandango movie. I mean, come on Disney, you bought Lucasarts!

  • http://www.facebook.com/XiaoFury Natalie Nicole Johnson

    I think the whole day of the dead thing is creepy. I live in San Antonio, TX, and almost everyday…tombstones are decorated and people LITERALLY have BBQs and potlucks either on top or near the deceased’s grave during holidays. With that being said, is there a reason why the Latino/Mexican community became offended at Disney for possibly representing a holy day that is creepy on its own?

  • SurfCity

    There have already been multiple films made with the name Dia de Los Muertos. Why does Disney have the right to trademark it simply because they have lots of money? It’s not like they were first.

  • SurfCity

    Do you think they’re the first ones to travel Mexico and research Dia De Los Muertos and make a film about it? I can assure you they are not.