You may remember the first time you saw a movie character die. There’s probably an entire generation still scarred after a stampede killed Mufasa in “The Lion King” or Little Foot’s mother died trying to save him from a Sharptooth in “The Land Before Time.” And no matter how many times I watch it, I still tear up in the first minutes of Pixar’s “Up,” when Carl loses his beloved wife.
In Pixar’s latest, “Coco,” there is no escaping death. Most of the film takes place in a colorful afterlife inspired by the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos. It’s where Miguel solves a long family mystery and meets many of the relatives who passed away before he was born. It is both a happy and tragic place: a simultaneous celebration of loved ones’ lives and a lament for their loss.
Death has shown up in animated movies for decades, but only recently have they gone beyond using tragic losses as devices in character development. Now death has moved from a plot point to the subject of the movie, and in “Coco,” we see a different version of the afterlife, one without pearly gates, clouds, angel wings or halos.
Because the freewheeling medium of animation isn’t constrained by reality, animators have long had the ability to play with the concept of death. Walt Disney could easily make skeletons dance in the cemetery. In the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes shorts, Wile E. Coyote could be crushed by a boulder and spring back up to chase the Road Runner. By making the morbid comical, it isn’t so frightening. You can laugh in the face of death.
Moving into longer features, Disney adapted folklore and fairy tales that tended to take darker turns than the lighthearted shorts that made the studio famous. Yet these longer movies were unambiguous: simple morality tales of good versus evil. In “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty,” for instance, love always conquers death, while death feels like a logical endgame for wicked queens and henchmen. The act of dying usually happened offscreen and was rarely mentioned by the stars, who moved right along to their happy ending.
The comfort of knowing that good characters would always win is partly why the death in “Bambi” (1942) remains so effective — even if it also takes place offscreen. Early on, the mother is almost angelic, patiently welcoming other animals to meet her new baby. But eventually she sacrifices herself for his safety. It’s a shock because you don’t anticipate anyone good dying in a Disney movie, and it became a lesson in tragedy, that death does not always come for a reason and that our loved ones are not immune from death.