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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.