When adults experience strong feelings, they naturally want to protect their kids from them, but experiencing good and bad things is part of growing up. Lee Unkrich Every filmmaker at Pixar has their signature moment: the one that comes up time and again in discussions of their work. For Lee Unkrich, it's the time he threw Woody and Buzz Lightyear in the furnace. As the director of Toy Story 3, Unkrich is responsible for what was, at least until recently, the animation house's most existentially frazzling moment, in which his loveable plastic heroes slid hand in hand towards a thundering incinerator, and almost certain death.

"A lot of people asked me, 'Aren't you worried that this is too intense for children?'," the 50-year-old tells me. And honestly, he was. He'd originally planned the scene by imagining how he would act if he were on a crashing airliner with his wife and three children: "a little morbid," he concedes, "but I wanted it to ring emotionally true. I'd just want to hold my family close, and we'd face it together."

To check he hadn't taken things too far, he tested a rough cut of the scene on his own kids, then aged between 5 and 12. They approved.

The experience confirmed a hunch. "Kids are more resilient than we give them credit for," he says. "When adults experience strong feelings, they naturally want to protect their kids from them, but experiencing good and bad things is part of growing up. And the safest place to experience the most troubling of all is movies."

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On that note, say hello to Coco. Unkrich's new film, seven years in the making, takes death as its backdrop. Set in Mexico during the country's annual Día de Muertos celebrations, it tells the story of a 12-year-old boy, Miguel, who journeys to a carnival version of the afterlife to unearth a literally long-buried family secret.

As such, Coco falls into a long tradition of children's films to tackle death with a frankness and fearlessness that's rarely found in cinema for grown-ups. In animation, it's something of a speciality: from the execution of Bambi's mother to Simba's wilderness years of mourning in The Lion King, via the heartbreaking prologue of Pixar's Up, many of the best films ever made in the medium are grounded in grief.

A 2014 study in the British Medical Journal chalked up the toll. After surveying 135 popular films made between 1937 and 2013, the researchers found that main characters in animations were 2½ times more likely to die, and three times more likely to be murdered, than their live-action counterparts.

Miguel sets off a mysterious chain of events and finds himself and his loyal dog Dante crossing into the Land of the Dead via a breathtaking bridge made of marigold petals.
Miguel sets off a mysterious chain of events and finds himself and his loyal dog Dante crossing into the Land of the Dead via a breathtaking bridge made of marigold petals.

In many of the films surveyed, the casualties were parents — and for a while, that's how Unkrich had envisioned Coco too. The film's original storyline followed a young American boy on a trip to Mexico to meet his late mother's extended family, then he'd enter the land of the dead and say one final goodbye.

Except as Unkrich and his team learnt more about Día de Muertos, they realised they had the whole thing backwards. Remembering generation upon generation of relatives once a year is more or less the opposite of what moving on looks like. The plot was torn up.

For psychotherapist Julia Samuel these films don't ask too much of their young target audiences. "Children need as much truth about death as adults, just expressed in ways they can understand," she explains. "And telling stories is how we understand ourselves and make sense of our world. So having a story to talk about together can help children not feel so alone with all of their strange thoughts and questions."

In her book, Samuel writes that children can understand the concept of death from around the age of 8. So simply avoiding the subject can do more harm than good.

"Often adults will try to protect children from the reality of death, but what children don't know, they make up to fill the gaps," she says. "And what they make up is always more frightening than the truth."

That doesn't mean under-10s are ready for a hard cinematic dose of existential nihilism. Samuel notes that Manchester by the Sea was a recent film that was hugely perceptive on grief, but you wouldn't want to sit your kids in front of it. So this is where the film classification comes in.

The British Board of Film Classification doesn't hold that death is an inherently unsuitable subject for children's films. Their guidelines state that themes like the death of loved ones, as in Coco, can be a factor, but the rating "will depend significantly on the treatment of that theme, and especially the sensitivity of its presentation".

The board met to discuss how to deal with themes of loss and bereavement in family films following the release last year of A Monster Calls, a live-action family film in which a young boy's adventures with a strange creature mirror his own coming-to-terms with his mother's impending death. The film isn't violent or otherwise obviously unsuitable, but it was rated 12A partly for its scenes of "emotional distress" — the bits in which the boy wrestles with his mother's terminal illness.

Other certification bodies around the world opted for similar ratings, with two notable exceptions. In Quebec, Canada, the film received the equivalent of a G; and in Russia, where death remains a thorny taboo even among adults, it was declared suitable only for audiences 16 and up.

Billie Morgan, the BBFC's PR and communications officer, points out that the board's public consultations have repeatedly revealed that parents are far less concerned by death in children's films than they are by bad language. But during Coco's test screenings in the US, Unkrich found another concern kept coming to light.

"Some parents weren't completely on board with the idea of their kids seeing the film because they felt the ideas we were exploring were not in line with their own religious beliefs," he explains. This was feedback he felt able to take with a smidgen of salt: "If you take your kids to see Star Wars, it doesn't mean you're endorsing a belief in the Force," he drily adds.

Even so, Coco's afterlife doesn't present itself as a conclusive answer to the mystery of what comes next.

Unkrich says he wanted it to feel like a "way station": the Land of the Dead's inhabitants are sustained by the memories of the living, and when any are finally forgotten, they expire and pass on to ... well, who knows? For Samuel, this part of the story is critical. Children shouldn't be told by filmmakers, or anyone else, that death puts a cold full-stop on a relationship: rather, the child's bond with the deceased can and should persist beyond it, albeit on greatly altered terms.

"What we talk about now is that the relationship and the love continue — perhaps through visiting a grave, or cooking grandma's favourite chicken, or telling stories about what the person was like when they were alive," she says. "Whereas my parents' generation treated it very differently. For them, you forgot and moved on."