It’s a bit of a joke to talk about Disney films and how they always seem to kill off one, or both of the protagonist’s parents. That’s just something that most of us have come to accept, but there’s a shocking revelation hiding behind our uncomfortable laughter, and that’s the fact that animated films are filled with death. A study done by The BMJ (originally the British Medical Journal) published in December of 2014 compared 45 animated films from Snow White (1937) to Frozen (2013) with 90 films categorized as Drama. It’s no surprise to learn that the animated films featured more on-screen deaths than the comparison films, but why does this happen, and what kind of an impact can this have on children?
There are actually a number of reasons why so many of these films feature the death of a parent, as well as one odd story for the specific reason it happens so often in Disney films. An interview with Disney producer Don Hahn (Maleficent) for Glamour eventually led to the question of why so many Disney films lacked a motherly presence. Hahn spoke of the death of Walt Disney’s mother Flora, who passed away from carbon monoxide poisoning due to a faulty furnace in a home that Disney had just bought for his parents. It suggests that Disney felt guilty about the death and this led to it playing a central role in the Disney films.
The lack of parents, or the sudden death of them, forces the protagonist to step up and become responsible. They’re essentially left with no other option than to mature, which is exactly what the films are about.
While that’s the kind of celebrity gossip that may entertain our darker fantasies, it’s not really a factor when it comes to Disney films. Prior to Flora’s death, Disney had already released Snow White, and was in production on Pinocchio and Bambi. A lack of parents, or in the case of Bambi a rather shocking death, show that while Flora’s death most certainly had an impact on Walt Disney, it played no part in the films the studio produced.
Hahn offered a much more realistic reason in the same interview when he explained that these films tend to be about young characters who have to grow up. The lack of parents, or the sudden death of them, forces the protagonist to step up and become responsible. They’re essentially left with no other option than to mature, which is exactly what the films are about. Many of these films are also based on older fairy tales, which feature absent parents, something that carries over into the updated film versions.
Why parents are missing in literature is a topic unto itself, but there are a few short answers. When many of these stories were written, death was a very large part of life. People did not enjoy the kind of long life that we do now, so it would only be natural that this would play a role in their stories. Some suggest that it’s a bit of laziness on the part of the writers, opting to leave the parents out to avoid having to write another character relationship. Still others say that it plays into the notion that kids often have; that their lives would be a lot more free and fun if their parents weren’t there to stop them.
The earthquake could just have easily destroyed their home, forcing his aunt and uncle to both move, which would leave Paddington to go in search of his new life. There really was no reason to kill his Uncle Pastuzo, so why even bother?
Hahn’s explanation that it forces the characters to grow up is probably the best answer for the prevalence of death in family films, but it’s also a theory that doesn’t hold up all the time. Take Paddington for example. In the original stories, Paddington was orphaned in an earthquake before he went to live with his Aunt Lucy. When Aunt Lucy moves to the Home for Retired Bears, Paddington is sent off on his adventures. The story still features the death of his parents, but the recent film changed a few things unnecessarily. Paddington still lives with his Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo, but the earthquake in the film kills his uncle and destroys their home, forcing his aunt to move.
This does follow the many of the same beats of the original story, but the death is also completely unnecessary. The earthquake could just have easily destroyed their home, forcing his aunt and uncle to both move, which would leave Paddington to go in search of his new life. There really was no reason to kill his Uncle Pastuzo, so why even bother? Paddington isn’t forced to grow up because of the death of his uncle, as is the suggested reason for death in Disney films. His growing up comes from the loss of his home and having to leave the adults who raised him behind. At times it appears that the deaths included in animated films are only there to evoke a strong reaction, and is really one of the only things that is both graphic and acceptable for a film aimed at children.
In this day and age, it seems odd that few are bothered by this fact. Parents will frequently go out of their way to make sure that their children aren’t exposed to anything that could possibly harm their psyche, no matter how small it may be, but nobody ever really speaks up about the kind of death portrayed in films aimed directly at younger viewers films. Looking back at the study published in The BMJ, we find some very surprising results that may actually make parents think twice before they sit down to the newest animated family film.
Kids tend to watch films over and over again, so though the deaths may occur less often throughout than their adult counterparts, they will probably see a specific death a large number of times. Fears could easily develop from these repeated viewings.
The study was looking at a very specific event, which was the first on-screen death of an important character in the film. In the 45 animated films used, only 15 (or 33%) had no on-screen deaths. The 90 dramatic films used for comparison had 45 films (or 50%) which featured no on-screen deaths. That means the films meant for children had 17% more on-screen deaths than their adult counterparts. That’s a rather wide margin when you’re talking about animated films which tend to be geared towards the under ten crowd.
Even more surprisingly, deaths in the animated films came in rather violent ways. Animal attack and falls topped the list at five each, while gunshot and drowning had three each. There’s an important point to note when looking at the ways in which someone dies in these kids films and that’s the effect it has on children.
Kids of a very young age will all handle death differently, although it’s generally accepted that kids four and under have trouble really understanding the finality and inevitability of death. They do not have much trouble understanding the relation of one event to another. If someone is killed by dogs, they could very easily be worried that the same thing will happen to them, or perceive that all dogs are dangerous. You don’t have to understand death to know that something could hurt you.
It’s important to remember that the study did look only at the first on-screen death of an important character in the films, so to say that animated films feature more death is probably incorrect. That doesn’t change the findings when you look at the ways in which people die, or who happens to be the main target. Perhaps to be expected from the study is finding out that the villain meets their demise in 13 of the 45 films, while parents take second place with 8 of the 45 films.
So what’s the takeaway here? It may change the way we think about animated films and our children watching them. Kids tend to watch films over and over again, so though the deaths may occur less often throughout than their adult counterparts, they will probably see a specific death a large number of times. Fears could easily develop from these repeated viewings.
The right course of action, however, is not to prevent kids from watching these films. Instead they could be a helpful step in teaching children about death. It’s probably not a topic many parents relish dealing with, but it is an inevitable conversation that can be approached from the point of a fictional film. Death has been a part of our storytelling for as long as people could share these stories, so it’s unlikely that things will change any time soon.