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Watching ‘Coco’ and Facing Death With a Four-Year-Old

Treading the thin line between gratuitous sadness and natural suffering

Pixar’s Coco is a movie about death. More specifically, it’s a movie about celebrating departed souls during Dia de los Muertos. The film is as good everyone says it is: visually stunning, wildly imaginative, deeply emotional, very entertaining. It’s basically Inside Out of the after life. When I went, the movie theater was full of families and couples on dates (strange date movie, but whatever). Pixar is such a trusted brand at this point that parents, myself included, happily trust the studio’s filmmakers to talk to kids about mortality. I wondered, as the first skeletons rattled across the screen, whether or not that trust was well placed.

To talk address death is to contextualize the decisions we make in life and the animating decision in Coco belongs a famous musician named Ernesto de la Cruz, who chooses professional fulfillment over family, scarring his children to such a degree that music is still verboten in his family’s homes generations later. This prompts the musically inclined boy hero of the film, Miguel Rivera, to search for the wayward paterfamilias in the afterlife. in Pixarland, everything gets even more colorful after death, but all the brightly colored alebrijes and elaborately inlaid guitars don’t ultimately distract from death itself.

Disney started animating mortality tales decades ago. I remember weeping as a boy during All Dogs Go To Heaven, parts one and two, which compromise multiple hours of dogs dying. What could be sadder? Pixar has the answer: memory. Coco is a film about how people are remembered, which means it’s also a film about the inevitable separation of those with a pulse and those without. This isn’t exactly an in-house innovation; this is the logic of the Day of the Dead, when souls who’s memories live on can visit the land of the living.

If death is jarring to children, separation is doubly so. The movie was heavy for my four-year-old.  We didn’t really get a chance to talk about it until I was putting him to bed. After we finished reading (the latest chapter of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar by Roald Dahl) I asked him about his thoughts and that turned into the conversation below.

Tell me about the movie Coco. What did you like about it?
It was good.

Was it sad?
Too sad, because someone died.

Part of the movie, I guess, is that death itself isn’t so sad. It’s just when people forget you.
Yeah but it’s too sad that someone died.

Well, you can’t escape death. Everyone dies. That’s why you have to enjoy life. Who do you know who died?

Papa Frank?
Yes. He isn’t real anymore.

He was real and he’s still real but now he exists as memories
But not Gramps, right? Gramps is still alive.  He’s not that old right?

He’s not too old.
You’re not that old right?

I’m not that old, at all. You’re not that old are you?
No, not at all. I’m only four.

You have a long life ahead of you.
You have a medium life in front of you, right?

Mommy has a medium.  I have this much. My brother has this much. He has a little less, right? Because I’m younger…. When mommy dies, I’ll be very sad.

She won’t die for a long time. but when she does you’ll remember her too.
I don’t want to marry anyone.

I only like mommy.

You’ll find someone you’ll want to marry. 
No, I won’t. I will not. I’m too sad about the movie. I’m so sad because mommy might die.

Mommy won’t die for a really long time.  Both Mommy and I have a long life in front of us.
I’m too sad about the movie.