Animated Conversations About Inanimate Bodies: Discussing Death in Children's Movies

My two children, ages seven and nine, have been surrounded by discussions of death since their earliest years. My parents died before the children were born, and my son and daughter talk about their grandparents, living and dead, as a matter of course. “Is that one alive now or the one who died?” they ask, often in descriptors, about which of their grandparents likes peanut butter and banana sandwiches and which one is obsessed with the Beatles. Likewise, their godmother died after my youngest child’s birth, and both children often walk around the house with animal hats, too small for their heads now, that she sewed for them. 

About once a year for the past few years, my children have experienced the loss of someone close to them: one of their uncles, then an aunt, and most recently a cousin who was like a stand-in grandfather to them. Moreover, a few months ago, my husband had a pancreatic cancer scare that resulted in gallbladder removal. The months between the scare and the gallbladder surgery produced a long, anxiety-ridden process for our family. Even after gallbladder surgery, doctors still are not sure why my husband has a pancreatic anomaly. Couple our family history with a global pandemic and school shootings targeting elementary schools, and we can understand that it is no wonder that my children often have questions about death.

They are not alone in being children fascinated with the subject. According to contemporary child-development psychologists, queries about death are common among children under ten, with “what happens to people when they die?” and “how old are you when you die?” being some of those most frequently asked[1]. Famous Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980) argued that until the age of ten children do not begin to conceptualize death as a construct, namely because at that age they can understand basic biological systems and how those systems break down through age, illness, or physical harm.

More recently, though, a sociocultural approach has challenged Piaget's logic. Psychologists have suggested that “children (and adults) often incorporate religious and spiritual beliefs into their understanding of death.”[2] Thus, answers to “what happens to people when they die” might include discussions on bodily decomposition but might also include (if one were Catholic, let us say) the idea that death is a change in corporeal state and not a permanent loss of selfhood or soul. While our physical bodies may perish, a possibility remains for a permanent life with God. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:8, “We are confident, I say, and willing to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord."

Yet, as readers of this journal likely already know, religion is not the only, or even the primary, lens young people use to contemplate death. Culture also frames the ways children perceive the world. Media, such as books, television, video games, and movies, guide children toward understanding death and its effects on their lives. Young adult (YA) novels, generally classified as those intended for ages 11 and up, often center on death and maintain a famous legacy of doing so.

Adults might remember reading about the beleaguered death of Beth March in Little Women, the unexpected drowning of Leslie Burke in Bridge to Terabithia, or Piggy's tragically infamous fall in Lord of the Flies. More recent YA books are also flush with macabre thematic ties: Thirteen Reasons Why, If I Stay, The Fault in Our Stars, and The Book Thief are all fictional bestsellers adapted into popular series or movies. Perhaps most notably, in November of this year, the next installment of The Hunger Games—in which children kill each other for sport—is set to be released. This franchise is the twenty-first-highest-grossing of all time, having amassed over 2.96 billion dollars to date: its future is set for an upward trajectory.

These cultural touchstones all target older children and adolescents, the ones believed by Piaget to be able to understand the finality of death. Parents and guardians still likely turn to these narratives as the frontline for discussions about death, but the YA genre’s targeting of slightly older audiences mimics a historically older understanding of child psychology.

Where are the cultural depictions of death when we confront the issue with younger children, children whom we now realize wrestle with this concept too? Unfortunately, books, and the adaptations of those stories we have traditionally relied on, do not offer the same complexity for younger children as they do for older ones. A 2014 study explored the frequency of death portrayal in children's books, analyzing parents' feedback on their children's favorite books and those honored with the Caldecott Medal.

The Association for the Library Service to Children awards the Caldecott to outstanding picture books or books usually intended for ages four to ten, our society’s earliest readers. The 2014 study’s findings revealed that merely 3 % of these children’s books depicted death.[3] With this said, there are numerous nonfiction books about how children under ten should cope with death after it happens, but not many fiction books for children present death as a driving theme—certainly not in the same way that YA books do.

Indeed, picture books often focus on literacy as much as emotional and spiritual content. Children stumbling over words and using pictures to aid their comprehension might be alarmed at slowing their pace to mull over the construct of “death” when reading the word aloud, using whatever image the illustrator chooses to correspond with the word. Certainly, staring at a gruesome scene in a picture book for referential understanding is likely not the entertainment choice of parents or children.

On the other hand, animated films can literally tell a different story because, like novels, they can move fluidly from one scene to the next, never spending too long on one plot point or image. Children do not pause in contemplation when watching movies as they do when digesting words and scenes in picture books. Rather, they are whisked along at the pace of a film's director. Further, character deaths in animated films often occur off-screen because children can interpret a film's content faster due to the medium's reliance on dialogue rather than a child's reading levels.

In watching films, children do not have to pause to examine a picture to understand what is happening in a narrative. Think now of the mothers’ death scenes in Bambi and Finding Nemo, and of Abuelo Pedro in Encanto, all taking place off-screen. Culturally, animated films have more resonance in exploring what death is and how it ought to be interpreted because of the latitude of the medium—not to mention the sheer social pervasiveness of screens over books in today’s digitally-saturated age.

It bears consideration, then, that recent children's movies use death not only as a backdrop but also as a driving force of their narratives—and I find myself now having many difficult conversations with my under-ten-year-old children because of these newer films. I suspect I am not alone in this sentiment. A 2021 study found that 76% of animated children's films contain a death scene,[4] starkly contrasting the 3% found in picture books that target that same age. In 2022, four out of five Oscar nominees for animated films explicitly centered on death. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, The Sea Beast, and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish share the theme of how to live well until death inevitably comes.[5]

Catholic film buffs who watched the winner of the 2022 animated films category, Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio with their children might recall (perhaps with a bit of horror) the film's beginning scene of a giant Crucifix falling from a Catholic Church and killing Geppetto's son Carlo. In this version of the famous fairy tale, Pinocchio, the puppet, must overcome being compared in the father’s memory to the human son. The movie concludes with Pinocchio's “resurrection” after being tied to and burned on a wooden cross. Rather than becoming a real boy, Pinocchio returns as a wooden child, a twist on the original 1883 version by Carlo Collodi and its other famous adaptations, including the most famous 1940 Disney version. The suggestion is that for all his flaws Pinocchio should not have to change who he is to find acceptance from his earthly father. In this rendering, Pinocchio is a purely secular child. After all, he is made by a human (Geppetto) in a creative montage that resembles a Frankenstein-horror sequence, calling upon that novel’s warning against inventors playing God.

Viewers can analogize that Geppetto's whittling of the new Crucifix in his parish (the Crucifix to replace the one that killed his original son) is akin to the creation of his Catholic religion itself, made-up by humans to keep them in line. In the film's imaginary, it is Pinocchio who is “real”; it is the wooden puppet that humans must learn from. Because the setting of the original fairy tale has been transferred to early twentieth-century Fascist Italy, religion in the film is depicted as an oppressor similar to Mussolini's fascist government.

In this transferred setting, it is important to recall that Roman Catholicism was declared the State religion of Fascist Italy (context I had to provide to my children while watching the movie). In the film, a cartoon priest and a government official are depicted together as villains of the worst sort, their evil smiles menacing and revolting. Pinocchio, at one point, is brought into the local parish to be judged by the parishioners and the priest, who we are to assume are frightened by his mere existence. No one shows him love, and Catholicism in the film is depicted as frightening and narrow. The sincerity of the people in the pews and the Catholicism they follow are illustrated as false in their redemptive, liberatory promises. The people of this religion are the puppets—not the workshop-created Pinocchio.

Geppetto, who seemed devoted to the Church before Pinocchio's existence, must learn to worship what humans make, or false idols from this Catholic writer’s perspective. He rejects a religion that has no higher resonance or spiritual guidance beyond that doled out by a corrupt priest working in concert with a tainted government official. Catholicism literally killed Geppetto’s human child via a Crucifix, which by the movie’s standards would signify a “false idol.” At the film’s end, Pinocchio lives well after Geppetto and everyone else he knows he has died, Christ-like in his risen nature and seeming immortality. Viewers are told to wait and see what happens to him.

Thus, Pinocchio emerges as a Christ figure who never focuses on the desire to become a “real boy,” a purposeful twist on the fairy tale. He is never “made flesh.” We are to assume that Carlo's death at the beginning of the movie symbolizes a new existence for Pinocchio, a death one might say of Collodi's original theme that human life is sacred and therefore aspirational. However, Carlo’s demise in the beginning of the movie is no accident. A culture of life that embedded the original classic, one might argue, is transfigured into the culture of a wooden, imitative existence of life, one wherein humanity finds ways to work and see beyond a divine plan (a la Geppetto being Pinocchio's creator and then learning by the film's end never to yearn to be less sinful).

In Collodi's text, the underlying theme is that to be human, to which Pinocchio aspires, one must learn from one's sins, sins that disrupt relationships with other humans. It is perhaps noteworthy here that this past year my seven-year-old daughter read Collodi's Pinocchio with her first-grade class. When I asked about its message, she told me the story is about “good and evil,” that Pinocchio is learning “to be good” and that “his father loves him.” Pinocchio, when doing wrong in Collodi’s version, “forget[s] his father . . . and all his good resolutions” until he learns to care for others before himself (what my daughter is seemingly defining as “being good”).

The original version concludes with Pinocchio sacrificing his immediate selfish desires to look out for his father and others, sequentially overcoming every temptation he had in the past for instant gratification. The original Pinocchio learns to give of his time and self: this is what it means to be human. This is a goal worth longing for.

Accordingly, after escaping the leviathan in the novel’s concluding scenes, Pinocchio says to his father in language that sounds biblical: “I imitated your example. You are the one who showed me the way, and after you went, I followed.” As aforementioned, in Guillermo del Toro's remake, however, Geppetto must learn from Pinocchio, realizing after Pinocchio saves his father’s life by sacrificing one of his own that he as a father should have always exhibited acceptance toward Pinocchio even when the boy knowingly did wrong.[6] Pinocchio never needs to learn how to follow anyone, not even his father. Logically, since there is no moral path for improvement focused on the sacredness of life that leads to God’s ultimate fulfillment, there’s no reason for Pinocchio to turn into a real boy, or even to desire to do so.

The movie, of course, conflicts with a Catholic understanding of life, and death. In his famous encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II writes, “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves 'the creative action of God,' and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end.” If one is born perfect, as Pinocchio supposedly is in the 2022 movie, and part of that perfection means maintaining sin, then the “end” of a moral relationship with a Creator who asks us to progress, to do better, is obsolete.

Gepetto, Italian for Joseph, Jesus’s earthly father, is a human who creates a son with no soul, a son whose being languishes in a wooden imitation of a real boy. There is no spiritual father, only a human one, whose morality is relative to his circumstances. Relationships in this movie become rooted in selfishness because no one needs to change; there is no divine Creator with whom one is trying to have a “special relationship.” There is only one’s self, absent of divinity, and whatever that self desires. This sense of self, which could be given to others but could also be withheld without consequence, is deemed morally good. Mere existence is enough. In the age of Artificial Intelligence, and the human propensity to play God, the problems with this perspective for Christians are not only clear but also alarming if one considers its potential outcomes.

When describing his vision, and the changes he made from Collodi’s version to his own, Gullermo del Toro articulates his moral stance, declaring, “When I was a kid, I said, ‘So what it means to be loved, is that you have to change?’ I couldn't accept that, so the writers took the classic material and retold a few strands of the original to change the key of how the material could sing.” Death, in this fantastical world, does not matter because—while it is a very real phenomenon in ours—accepting its reality would mean accepting humanity, with its ingrained idea of moral and spiritual improvement, as a potential good.

Although not aligned with a Catholic worldview, this Oscar winner for Best Animated Picture calls for audiences—Catholics I would argue especially included—to discuss how they view death and the afterlife with each other and with the children they care about. Animated films like this one are the primary cultural touchstones through which very young children envisage death, and we ought not ignore their impact on children’s eschatological understandings or that of ourselves and the Church as a whole.

After all, in addition to the thematic issues addressed above, del Toro (a self-described “lapsed Catholic”) had another message for audiences watching this movie, especially audiences with children: “There's a difference between a 'family movie' and a 'babysitter movie,” he said in an interview. “The latter has been pasteurized to be consumed without parental supervision. We wanted a movie that could be discussed and enjoyed by adults and kids, whether they were together or not.” In this belief, del Toro and I invariably agree: animated movies that discuss spiritual matters as weighty as death should never be “babysitter” movies but instead should be opportunities for catechesis.

Yet they too rarely are. Cognitive psychologists have recently reported, “Most parents (55%) did not seem to be concerned about how deaths are depicted in animated films and might not correct misconceptions when they arise.”[7] I can relay that I often do not want to discuss these issues—and I almost turned Pinocchio off because I found its religious overtones disturbing for my children. With this said, the conversations it spurred about our beliefs mattered. It brought up questions from my children that I think were important to address, questions they will ask again in other ways in the future, questions their peers will likely ask of them, and questions they might have been holding in their hearts but had not yet found the right moment to articulate.

It may not be surprising that I converted to Catholicism in large part because my parents’ death left me wondering, uncertain, questioning. I was a seeker, trying to make sense of death and my life. I realized that death (and life) is more than a corporeal state; death is a part of who we are as humans. It is a necessary transition between the earthly world and the world of everlasting joy in Heaven. As Catholics and stewards of children in our homes and our parishes, it is our responsibility to prepare them for it, to talk about it with them, and to catechize them in whatever ways are most likely to reach their hearts and meet them where their understanding is.

The devotion of Memento Mori (Latin for “remember your death”) has a long tradition in Catholicism. While animated films may not be how we learned to practice Memento Mori in our religious education classes, they provide an inroad to discussing this devotion and part of our faith with our youngest parishioners.

However, as del Toro reminds us with Pinocchio, animated films must be carefully chosen and viewed as “family movie[s],” not “babysitter” opportunities. Inevitably, death is a part of our existence, and we are made better by recognizing it and considering our collective progress toward salvation history every day. I often tell my children I have two goals for them as their mother. The first is to be sure they are good, kind people, and the second is to prepare their souls for Heaven. If watching movies is one way I can reach the second goal, then catechesis in the twenty-first century perhaps is not as daunting a task as I usually feel it is.

Here, I add that in another 2022 movie and one of my children's favorites, Puss (Antonio Banderas) says when he confronts death in Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, “I will never stop fighting for this life." As a Catholic, I talked with my children after this movie about its depiction of death, and I am positive that they know that "I will never stop fighting for their afterlife."

[1] David Menendez, Iseli G. Hernandez, and Karl S. Rosengren, "Children's Emerging Understanding of Death," Child Development Perspectives, vol. 14, no. 1, (2020): 57.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rosengren, Karl S, et al., "Children's Understanding of Death: Toward a Contextualized and Integrated Account," Monographs of Child Development Perspectives, no. 312, (2014): 79.

[4] Bridgewater, Enrica, et al. "Capturing Death in Animated Films: Can Films Stimulate Parent-Child Conversations about Death?" Cognitive Development, vol. 59, (2021): 6.

[5] The other movie nominated was Turning Red, which depicts the coming-of-age of an adolescent girl. The film begins with a thirteen-year-old Mei visiting the Lee Family Temple. Mei honors her ancestors while there, and her dreams about them spark the impetus for the movie's plot. While death is not front and center in this film, spirituality and the afterlife are still in its backdrop.

[6] In this version, Pinocchio has numerous lives to spend until he finally dies. This plot point is remarkably similar to the storyline of Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, where Puss (an animated cat) is in his ninth life and must learn to value this life because he has squandered his others. Guillermo del Toro was an executive producer of this other Oscar-nominated 2022 film, a surprise box-office success.

[7] Bridgewater, Enrica, et al. "Capturing Death in Animated Films: Can Films Stimulate Parent-Child Conversations about Death?" Cognitive Development, vol. 59, (2021): 17.

Featured Image: Screencap from Netflix's Pinocchio, Fair Use.


LuElla D’Amico

LuElla D’Amico is Associate Professor of English and the Women’s and Gender Studies Coordinator at the University of the Incarnate Word. She is the editor of Girls’ Series Fiction and American Popular Culture and co-editor of Reading Transatlantic Girlhood in the Long Nineteenth Century.

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