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Surprise: Mexico-Based ‘Coco’ Is More Popular in China Than the U.S.

Mexico and China have a powerful tradition in common

“Coco,” a movie about a Mexican boy who longs to be a musician, is more popular in China than in Mexico’s neighbor, the United States. The reason may be China’s respect for the dead.

“Coco” has grossed $154 million in China over four weekends, compared to $150.7 million in the U.S. “Coco” is by far Pixar’s biggest hit ever in China, nearly quadrupling the $38 million made by “Finding Dory” last year.

China may be thousands of miles away from Mexico, but the film’s embrace of Mexico’s Dia de Muertos and honoring the dead have resonated with Chinese audiences who have similar traditions, said Stanley Rosen, a political science professor at USC’s US-China Institute.

One of China’s biggest holidays is the Qingming (which roughly translates as “tomb-sweeping”) Festival. The Chinese mark it by celebrating family both living and dead: Loved ones travel together to graves to pray and offer food and drink.

“There have been films in the past that Chinese audiences have embraced for their message about family,” said Rosen. “What we’re seeing with ‘Coco’ is similar to what we saw with ‘Dangal,’ which was about the first women wrestlers to compete for India and their father who trained them. That film also had a strong message about putting family first and became a huge hit in China.”

Chinese moviegoers have made their presence known in many ways this year: The homegrown “Wolf Warrior 2” is a megabit that has grossed $854 million. Chinese film officials closely regulate which U.S. films can play in the country and for how long, and sometimes ban movies about ghosts and the occult. This was the case for the first two “Pirates of the Caribbean” films.

But in recent years, China has allowed some ghost stories to hit the big screen, such as “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.” The latter grossed $172 million in the country.

“It’s on a case-by-case basis, but ‘Coco’ had a very colorful underworld that was a lot like an amusement park, and of course there’s a focus on cultural traditions that are quite similar to what is done in China,” said Rosen. “China’s film board is also trying to expand the number of animated films that it screens in per year, trying to show there’s an interest in animation and create an industry of their own.”

“Coco” has certainly helped that cause, proving to be such a huge success that Chinese officials have allowed it to stay in theaters longer than originally planned — until Jan. 21.

Surprisingly, “Coco” has even held up against end-of-year Chinese releases like the coming of age film “Youth,” which opened to $48 million this weekend. It remains to be seen if it can break the Chinese animated box office record set by “Zootopia” last year with $235.5 million.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is dominating worldwide box office with a $415 million global opening. But it won’t be released in China until Jan. 5.