Día de Muertos Featured In Hollywood Films
Mexico's Día de Muertos is emerging in Hollywood feature films. Major studios are noticing what Mexican culture has to show us.
Just like the Mexican directors and Mexican cinematographers currently dominating the US box office and award ceremonies, Mexican culture is also finding the spotlight in film. Mexico’s biggest annual event is Día de los Muertos – Day of the Dead. The celebration has now made its way into several major feature films.
Mexican culture has always been an influence on animators, so it should come as no surprise that traditional Mexican culture first started appearing in animated films. The stunning colors of Mexico would first appear in animated films like The Three Caballeros in 1944.
For many in the United States, The Three Caballeros was their first look at the culture and history of Mexico. The film followed Donald Duck as he travelled to Mexico, brilliantly blending animation and live footage shot throughout the country.
Even though Mexico had been featured in animated films and countless westerns, Día de los Muertos was not a subject often presented. Until recently, the celebration had been seen as taboo. American and western audiences didn’t openly talk about death, let alone celebrate it. Before continuing, we will need to cover a little history of Día de los Muertos.
The History of Día de los Muertos
Día de los Muertos (actually just called Día de Muertos in Mexico) is a holiday that celebrates friends and family members who have died. The purpose of the holiday is to remember a person’s life and to pray for their continuing spiritual journey.
The celebration actually dates back thousands of years to an Aztec festival dedicated to Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of the Underworld. The month-long celebration originally took place during the 9th Aztec month. After the Spanish colonization and introduction of the Roman Catholic church, the festival moved to align with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
Día de los Muertos begins on October 31st. On that day, families build altars with offerings — called ofrendas — for their dead loved ones. The altars are decorated with marigold flowers, sugar skulls, bread, and the favorite food and drinks of the deceased. These ofrendas are typically built at home, and often transported to the cemetery.
On November 1st, Día de los Angelitos – Day of the Little Angels – is celebrated. This day is dedicated to children that have died. The day is also called Día de los Inocentes – Day of the Innocents. November 2nd is the true Día de los Muertos, in which the deceased adults are celebrated.
The traditions vary among the towns. In fact, since the celebration is steeped in Aztec culture, it was only celebrated in central and southern Mexico. Northern Mexico didn’t truly celebrate the day until the 1960s, when Día de los Muertos became a national holiday. In 2003, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added Día de los Muertos to the list of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
As the celebration became widely celebrated it Mexico, it was also gaining traction elsewhere, too. Countries like Brazil and Spain had their own versions of the celebration. As the influx of Mexican immigrants to the United States grew, so did the influence of the culture. There was certainly a backlash, as was common with any type of major immigration to the US, but we are now starting to see Mexican culture celebrated in mainstream media.
Día de los Muertos in Film
As Mexican culture has been embraced, particularly in the southern portion United States, Día de los Muertos has been growing in popularity. One of the reasons why is the introduction of the celebration to children. Kids had always favored Halloween and ‘Trick or Treating’ for candy, but over the past few decades, children have been the first to learn about Día de los Muertos. The celebration was making its way into animated films.
The Halloween Tree (1993)
In the early 1990s, The Halloween Tree made its way onto television screens across the country. The film actually dealt with some dark aspects, as a group of kids tries to save the soul of one of their friends. In doing so, they learn the origins of Halloween celebrations all over the world. The big final set piece takes place in Mexico during Día de los Muertos.