Embraced by the U.S. mainstream in recent years, Día de Muertos, the Mexican holiday (that’s also celebrated in other Latin American countries) in remembrance of those friends and relatives who’ve passed away before us, has become a permanent fixture in the American consciousness with skull makeup at every Halloween party and death-themed candy and decorations having become widely available. Undeniably, the release of Pixar’s Coco amplified such awareness.
In Mexico, the celebration took inspiration from the 2015 James Bond movie Spectre when the government of CDMX launched a Day of the Dead parade mimicking the one audiences loved on screen. Events related to Mexicans’ singular relationship with death always existed, but the Hollywood-inspired procession is something new that hopes to attract more tourism.
Before Coco and Spectre, Mexican filmmakers had tackled this endearing and spiritual approach to honoring the deceased on multiple occasions, with animation being the preferred medium to portray the vibrant and fantastical elements of the holiday. A recurrent character in most of the short films and features about Día de Muertos, is La Catrina — a dashing skeleton dame created by artist José Guadalupe Posada — seen elegantly dressed and exuding sophistication.
The following list of Día de Muertos-themed movies includes some obvious choices and a few more obscure gems. Just in time to get in the altar-making mood.
This classic film from 1960 directed by Roberto Gavaldón was the very first Mexican production ever to be nominated at the Oscars for the Best Foreign Language Film. The narrative is based on the novel by the same name by German author B. Traven who spent many years of his life and died in Mexico. Macario (played by iconic thespian Ignacio López Tarso) is a humble indigenous man who dreams of eating an entire turkey by himself, but is tested by the Devil, God, and Death itself when asked to share his long-awaited meal with them. Shot in breathtaking black-and-white cinematography by the legendary Gabriel Figueroa, the story takes place the night before Día de Muertos. Some of the most unforgettable sequences include the used of skeleton puppets in nightmarish fashion and a phantasmagorical walk through the underworld where people’s souls are represented by candles.
Hasta los Huesos (2001)
René Castillo’s landmark stop-motion short film became an international sensation screening at dozens of festivals around the globe including Annecy International Animated Film Festival, the most renowned animation event in the world. Featuring a large number of handcrafted puppets and gorgeously designed sets, this marvel of Mexican animation mixes comedy with profound longing. After being buried alive, a man sinks into an underworld populated by revolutionary skeletons drinking heavily. There, he witnesses La Catrina’s haunting performance of “La Llorona” in the voice of singer Eugenia León, and discovers the afterlife might not be so bad. Though there is virtually no dialogue, actor Bruno Bichir and director Celso García (La delgada línea amarilla) are credited for the sounds and reactions of some of the characters.
La Leyenda de la Nahuala (2007)
Pioneering Mexican animation company Ánima Estudios kicked off its most popular franchise with 2007’s La Leyenda de la Nahuala, which has spawned several sequels: La Leyenda de La Llorona, La Leyenda de las Momias de Guanajuato, La Leyenda del Chupacabras, and the more recent La Leyenda del Charro Negro. All of them look at a spooky folk tale from a family-friendly point of view. La Nahuala is set on Día de Muertos 1807, as a young hero, Leo, tries to stop an ancient witch from collecting souls during the spiritually-driven holiday and become more powerful. Sugar skulls and alebrijes come to life and become his sidekicks in this colonial quest.
De un jalón hasta el panteón (2009)
This hand-drawn animated short film directed by Enrique Sañudo as his thesis project for Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana Xochimilco (UAM X) in Mexico City is a hilarious take on the Land of the Dead. An everyday Mexican father is watching TV when he falls asleep and wakes up at a cantina full of skeletons. There, he meets Carlos Calavera, his guide through this realm who speaks using colloquial phrases. Carlos introduces the new guest, who is now a skeleton himself, to El Santo, Frida, and Cantinflas — a fun scene done here before Coco. The short continues with an energetic dance between the protagonist and La Catrina, wearing her ostentatious hat of course, and his realization that someone in his life needs to be remembered. Back in 2009, the short film played some of Mexico and Latin America’s most important festivals including the Morelia International Film Festival.
Día de Muertos (2012)
Even though the animation is rudimentary, without much detail or movement, the three Latino co-directors behind this short (students Ana Sifuentes, Adrián Cavazos & Sofía Avilés) succeed at capturing the essence of the family-oriented tradition: honoring those who are no longer with us. A girl wakes up in the middle of the night and takes a walk with her grandmother through a passage illuminated by floating candles leading toward an ofrenda. Once they get there, a twist is revealed.
Día de los Muertos (2013)
Impressively crafted by three talented students from the Ringling College of Art and Design (Ashley Graham, Kate Reynolds and Lindsey St. Pierr), this lively CG short film begins in a cemetery as a young girl mourns her recently deceased mother. Finding a magical blue flower, the young protagonist is transported to a land with friendly skeletons, endless pan dulce, and mariachi music. A jovial female skeleton shows her around and even uses one of her bones to break a piñata before an emotional conclusion.
The Book of Life (2014)
Mexican animator Jorge Gutierrez, who grew up in Tijuana and graduated from CalArts, saw one of his biggest dreams realized when Guillermo del Toro came on board as a producer of his debut feature The Book of Life — a project that materialized after working on several canceled television shows. His take on Día de Muertos exalted his unique stylistic vision through characters that resembles hand-carved wooden figures, and centered on a love triangle orchestrated by the power deities La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), who rules the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), her counterpart in the Land of the Forgotten. Diego Luna voices the musically inclined hero Manolo, who even after death fights to return to his dear Maria (Zoe Saldana). Gutierrez’s aesthetically striking work received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Animated Feature.
If the otherworldly festivities were already on their way to becoming a highly marketable piece of Latinx culture before November of 2017, Pixar’s Coco ignited a phenomenon prompting its visibility to reach audiences on an uncharted global scale. The adventure follows Miguel, a young boy who loves music but whose family has sworn off of it, as he inadvertently travels to the Land of Dead and encounters his deceased relatives, colorful alebrijes, and characters from Mexican popular culture. Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, Coco received two Oscars at the 90th Academy Awards: Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song for “Recuérdame.” In its English-language version the movie features the voices of stars from both sides of the border including Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Edward James Olmos, and Jaime Camil. Coco’s box-office success and cultural significance has been such that the City of Los Angeles declared February 27 as Coco Day.
Día de Muertos (2019)
Since 2012, Guadalajara-based studio Metacube has been working on an animated feature titled Día de Muertos directed by Carlos Gutierrez. It finally hits in Mexico theaters on November 1. In the Mexican town of Santa Clara, a 16 year-old orphan named Salma who never got to meet her biological parents. The only story she’s been told her whole life is that they abandoned her. Salma has spent most of her life dedicated to searching out clues for her parents’ identity and their whereabouts with little to no luck, until she discovers a special book that is filled with stories of Santa Clara and the history of its people. With the book in hand, Salma sets off on an adventure with her foster brothers, Jorge and Pedro, to find the missing links to her family’s heritage in hopes that she’ll finally get to meet her long-lost parents. It features the voices of Memo Aponte, Fernanda Castillo and Alan Estrada.