Death is a big scary universal constant, and we humans are obsessed with writing about it. And while some fantasy stories have serious themes about life and death (see: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Fullmetal Alchemist, Game of Thrones, and many more), some use the existence of magic to poke fun at life’s last great mystery.
I love these sorts of stories in particular because, when I engage with fictional media, I want to experience a world I can be jealous of—one that, for whatever reason, is cooler than the real world. And while I appreciate the weight of lessons like Fullmetal Alchemist’s “nothing is equivalent in value to a human life” or Game of Thrones’s “death can be sudden and meaningless”, sometimes I’d much rather read something where death is not treated as The Number One Most Terrifying Thing.
Pushing Daisies is one of these series. It’s quite possibly the brightest, happiest show about death I’ve ever seen. (Bright as in the tone of the story and bright as in the oversaturated coloring.) The concept behind the show is this: early in life, a boy named Ned discovered he had the power to bring the dead back to life with a touch. Unfortunately, though, the power is limited; he can only revive them for sixty seconds and then must touch them again to re-kill them, or something else will die to keep the balance. Whether bringing a bee back to life kills a nearby roach, or bringing a dead childhood sweetheart back to life kills the funeral parlor director, this rule holds fast. Now an adult, Ned uses his powers to help a private investigator solve murders by briefly reviving the victims to find out what happened.
I really like Pushing Daisies because it rides a fine line between funny and sad in regards to death. The murder of the week is invariably a ridiculously convoluted and corny death, and much of the humor comes from these situations and from the shenanigans needed to hide Ned’s power from others. The show still acknowledges that death and being separated from your loved ones is painful and difficult, while at the same time presenting us with deaths that happen in such absurd circumstances that we can’t help but laugh.
The Corpse Bride is another story that, on one hand, plays fast and loose with the finality of death, while also still dealing with serious subject matter. The titular bride, Emily, was betrayed, robbed, and murdered by her paramour on the night they planned to elope. Years later, a man named Victor is practicing his wedding vows in the woods and accidentally pledges himself to Emily’s corpse. Victor finds himself stuck with a zombified wife and experiences the bright and jazzy world of the dead while he’s still alive. Many shenanigans ensue, and in the end Emily gets justice for her death but realizes it’s selfish to keep Victor from his intended bride.
While there’s a lot of wild stuff to unpack in this movie, not least of all the utterly weird necrophiliac vibe tied into any implication that Victor has romantic feelings for Emily, in this case I want to look at the contrast between the living and the dead. The Corpse Bride portrays the world of the living as a dreary, sepia-toned place with Victorian morals and unsatisfying lifestyles. The land of the dead, however, is a wild and colorful place, filled with laughter, kinship, and ragtime piano, suggesting that the afterlife isn’t as scary as we may imagine it to be. Furthermore, the movie ends with the two universes briefly reintegrating, giving the living a chance to see their long-dead loved ones one more time
Both of these stories, in their own ways, use their fantastical worlds to bring a measure of joy and absurdity into the grim reality of death. Corpse Bride suggests that death is not as terrifying as we might make it out to be; Pushing Daisies reminds us that humor can be found in even the most tragic of situations. I appreciate these stories so much because for a little while, they let me look at a harsh reality of life with a little levity.
If you liked these films/shows, maybe you’d also be interested in The Book of Life? I saw the trailer last week and it caught my fancy because of the unique cultural influences (it takes place in what appears to be the afterlife of Latin American mythology) and also because how the film, also animated, treats the subject of death. Note that the underworld here is called the Land of the Remembered, and the title itself has the word ‘life’ in it, even if it centers on death. Give it a look, I’d love to hear what you think 😉
Ah I’ve seen the trailer for it and I can. not. wait. I desperately wanted to write about it in this post but with only the trailer to go off of I felt like it’d be a stretch.
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