Even though Pixar’s latest effort, Coco, is another heartwarming animated tale aimed at family audiences, it does deal with often difficult subjects to discuss with kids, like death, grief, and memory loss. By most accounts, though, Coco is great, so don’t be afraid to see it with your children. But if you’re looking for some alternate recommendations, Christy Lemire has you covered.
Rating: PG, for thematic elements.
The latest animated extravaganza from Disney/Pixar is a visual delight, brimming with color, energy and magical creatures. But much of the film from director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) also takes place in the Land of the Dead, which is full of talking, singing skeletons as well as spirit animals that can, at times, seem menacing. It’s all beautiful and often quite funny. But danger abounds as well as deeply sad moments about memory loss and death. Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old boy from a Mexican family full of shoemakers, dreams of becoming a musician like his idol, movie and singing star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). But his family has forbidden music in the house for generations because of a long-ago betrayal. On Dia de los Muertos – the traditional Day of the Dead – Miguel travels to the Land of the Dead to fulfill his destiny and learn his true identity. The skeletons are, for the most part, warm and friendly. Miguel’s ancestors, who’ve been watching over him, welcome him and help him get back home. But very young kids might find them frightening, as well as a giant, winged spirit animal that’s after Miguel. Scenes in which elderly relatives appear feeble, forgetful and on the brink of death might seem confusing to small children, but they also offer the opportunity to talk about the importance of honoring the cultural contributions of our ancestors. Fine for viewers around 5 or 6 and older.
If you’re looking for other films that deal with themes of loss, death, and the great beyond to share with your family, there are lots of great choices, including:
Rating: PG, for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language.
The stop-motion animation films from LAIKA (Coraline, Kubo and the Two Strings) are painstakingly rendered and endlessly inventive. But they often have an off-kilter sense of humor and darker themes, which might work best for more mature kids. Here, in the studio’s second film, an 11-year-old misfit named Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) must use his ability to communicate with the dead to save his small New England town from a zombie invasion. But the place already was cursed, thanks to a centuries-old witch-hunt. Monsters abound, which clearly will be too frightening for very little kids. Children are almost constantly in peril and there are lots of dark shadows and jump scares. The creatures are grotesque – some have body parts that fall off — but that’s usually played for laughs. But Norman also has the opportunity to connect with his recently deceased grandmother (the great Elaine Stritch), who lingers in purgatory and serves as his friend and guide. It’s a touching relationship. ParaNorman also has valuable themes about understanding, tolerance and overcoming bullying. Fine for viewers around 8 and older.
Rating: PG, for thematic elements, scary images and action.
Another stop-motion animated film, this time from the delightfully twisted mind of Tim Burton. Following the accidental death of his beloved dog, Sparky, 10-year-old Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) figures out how to bring his buddy back to life using his vast science knowledge. Sparky isn’t quite the same, though, and his reincarnation leads to an invasion of monstrous creatures. Burton’s film is gorgeous in crisp black-and-white, and the meticulous details are dazzling. Frankenweenie might be too scary for very young children; technically and thematically, it represents the best of what Burton has had to offer over his lengthy career. But it’s also a sweet story about the powerful bond between a boy and his dog, one that goes on even after death — a heartrending subject, to be sure, but one that Burton infuses with his trademark mix of lively energy and macabre laughs. The film also features a sympathetic, protective portrayal of an outsider and an affectionate skewering of the sanctity of suburbia. Fine for kids around 7 and older.
Have tissues handy: My Girl is a tearjerker, no matter how old you are. It’s also a sweet coming-of-age movie that’s a good fit for both girls and boys. Director Howard Zieff’s film is much better than its 50% Tomatometer score would suggest, thanks to its strong cast. Anna Chlumsky stars as Vada, a perky and bright pre-teen girl who’s obsessed with death in 1972. Her father (Dan Aykroyd) is a mortician, her mother died giving birth to her, and she’s a hypochondriac. (And, as in Coco, Vada has a grandmother who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s.) Her best friendship with a boy named Thomas J. (Macaulay Culkin) helps provide her with the comfort and stability that she needs, especially when Dad gets remarried to his new cosmetician (Jamie Lee Curtis). But a shocking, accidental death changes everything. Vada, a tomboy, is coming to terms with puberty, so there’s also some sort-of grown-up talk about body changes. My Girl may seem overly earnest, but it’s also a well-intentioned and direct film about moving through loss and grief toward understanding and redemption. Fine for viewers around 8 and older.