We have all done it. We’ve sat in a theater or at home ready to enjoy a light-hearted Disney movie about princesses, singing, and talking woodland creatures when BAM! We are suddenly crying our eyes out.
This usually happens early on in the movie, and more often than not, we are crying because a cartoon parent is dead or just died.
The best known, most emotional, and classic example of this Disney phenomenon is Bambi.
But a quick, critical look back at my Disney movie watching days shows I weathered many Disney parents dying and more than a few protagonists without parents.
Tissue up: here come some examples. There’s Little Mermaid‘s Ariel, Beauty and the Beasts‘ Belle, and Aladdin‘s Jasmine without their mothers. Cinderella has an evil stepmother and loses her father. Dumbo‘s mother is taken away from him. Poor Simba from The Lion King not only loses his father but is tricked into thinking it’s his fault. Nemo loses his mother (permanently) and his father (temporarily). Russell from Up has an absentee father. And to close out this sad, sad list: Frozen‘s Elsa and Anna send their parents off on a quick trip only to lose them in a raging storm.
This is almost too much fictional parental death to bear.
Speaking of bears: Merida’s mom becomes one for a while, which is a pretty traumatic experience, too!
After reviewing this incomplete and sad list of Disney characters without parents, we have to ask “why?”.
Well, it may come from Walt’s own personal experience. This theory says Walt, unconsciously or consciously, used his own personal experience of losing his mother as he drove and developed movies after her death.
In 1938, after enjoying the financial success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt and his brother Roy bought a house for their parents in Burbank, CA, near their studio. Shortly after their parents, Flora and Elias, moved in, the furnace was acting up. Walt sent a few of his studio repairmen over to the house to take a look at fix the furnace. Sadly, they did not properly fix the furnace, it continued to leak, and Flora Disney died of asphyxiation a few days after the attempted repair.
It is said his mother’s death haunted Walt for the rest of his life. He blamed himself for sending his repairmen over, and he never recovered from the guilt and grief he felt at losing her.
But this theory doesn’t explain the subsequent theme of parental loss in movies post-Walt. Rather it seems the theme of death and the various manifestations of associated grief that come from losing an important parental figure are ones that imagineers and film writers regularly use as a tool in their storytelling — even in light-hearted animated ones.
We have to go get a box of tissues now. 😢
What do you think of this theory — is it viable, or do you have your own theory? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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2 Replies to “Why Do the Parents Always Have to Die in Disney Movies?”
The absence of parents or adults is a common trope in most children’s literature and fairy tales, from which Disney gets many of its sources. A child alone must, of necessity find their own way. There’s not much of a story if mommy or daddy can just swoop in and fix everything. from Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz up through Harry Potter, parents are conspicuously absent. It really has nothing to do with Disney, per se, but just the nature of storytelling.
Perfectly said, Robt. Even in modern storytelling I see this; movies that feature kids on an adventure are huge on the “widowed dad” trope, because these kids are always sneaking out at night, aren’t they. They’re never going to get away with that if mom is in the house! “What was that noise? What are you doing out of bed? Are you trying to open your window? Get back into bed right now, young man/lady!” ; )