Walt Disney Wants to Kill Your Parents (not really, but kinda....)

(This is a two-part post, but if you haven't read this first part, the second part that I just posted won't make much sense.  So I'm keeping this post on top so it's one cohesive essay.  Feel free to comment!)

The newspaper editor in me came up with the title to this post.  It's provocative and engaging.  Is there a secret plot by the Disney corporation to kill parents?  In reality, of course not, but if you're a parent in a Disney animated cartoon, then I might invest in some of that cheap term life insurance, because you're in some serious danger.  Throughout the history of Disney full-length features, there have been (with the release of Tangled in 2010), fifty animated features.  If you put much thought to it, you'd be surprised how few of those movies have two parental figures of a major character in the story, or where both parents survive the entire story.

I was talking with my wife a few months ago and mentioned noticing the lack of dual parent households in the pantheon of Disney animated movies, or at least dual parent households where the parents survived the story.  So it got me to thinking.  What were the real stats?  I searched online and found a few mentions of the idea, but not a whole lot of specifics.  Where was there a breakdown of each movie and the parental situation of each?  I couldn't find it.  So I decided to do some more research and put it all in one place, along with some ideas on the psychology of Disney animated movies and why there were so few families where both mom & dad were present from start to finish.

You might assume that in wanting to gather all of this information that I have an agenda and am trying to make Disney look bad.  At worst, you'd think that I'm a fervent Disney hater.  In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.  Both my wife and I are huge Disney fans who've been to Disneyland tons and also to Disney World.  We love taking our sons to Disney parks and when they do watch movies, chances are it's a Disney or Pixar one.  I have tremendous respect for the work that Walt Disney did as an artist and executive.  I've always fantasized about working for Disney, helping to create some of the magic that I'd enjoyed so much as a kid and still enjoy as an adult.  So my desire to figure this out was curiosity rather than animosity.  It's a strange cultural phenomenon that I wanted to try and figure out.

So let's break it down, one movie at a time and see what the final results are.  The movies are listed chronologically, beginning with the first full-length animated movie ever, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) - Snow White's mother is dead and her father is absent at best, presumed dead at worst. (Potential Parents: 2 / Surviving Parents: 0)

Pinocchio (1940) - Geppetto created Pinocchio and survives the story.  In all of my research, I can't find a single mention of a wife for Geppetto, either before or after Pinocchio's "birth."  Can't really knock Disney for no mom, so for me, Pinocchio gets credit on the plus side.  (Potential Parents: 1 / Surviving Parents: 1)

Fantasia (1940) - Since this is just a collection of shorts, I'm not going to count it on my list.  There are a few other "features" that are just collections of shorts, so they won't be tallied either.

Dumbo (1941) - There's only Dumbo's mother* in the story, and she's taken away from him early in the movie in a very traumatic scene.  Dumbo had no real father, even if Timonty Mouse became a parental figure to him.  (Potential Parents: 2 / Surviving Parents:  1)

Bambi (1942) - In one of the most traumatic deaths in cinematic history, Bambi's mother is shot by a hunter and dies, leaving the young deer with just his father.  (Although in reality, you don't see her die.  All you hear is a gunshot.)  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  1)

The next six animated features, Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time and The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad were all "package films," collections of shorts with some bridging sequences, so even though there's no mother figure in The Three Caballeros and it appears that Katarina's mom is dead in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, I'm not counting any of them on my official tally.  And for my purposes, I'm counting Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 as the same kind of movies.

Cinderella (1950) - Cinderella's mom is already dead when the movie starts, and then her dad dies when she's a teenager.  Her stepmother, who was pretty horrible while Cinderella's dad was alive, reveals her true bitch nature after his death, berating, tormenting & belittling Cinderella at every juncture.  (Potential Parents:  3 / Surviving Parents:  1 (the horrible stepmom, of course))

Alice in Wonderland (1951) - I felt a little bad for knocking Dumbo for the lack of a dad, so I'm going to put Alice in the plus column because although there is no mention of parents, there's also no mention of a parental trauma.  Alice and her sister appear well taken care of, evidenced by the fact that they are well dressed, well mannered, and can spend a lazy afternoon by the bank of the river.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  2 (I think))

Peter Pan (1953) - Although Wendy, John and Michael have parents at the beginning and end of the story, Peter is an orphan, with the lost boys all presumably orphans as well.  The negatives outweigh the positives, so a minus for this one.  (Potential Parents:  4 (not including The Lost Boys) / Surviving Parents:  2)

Lady and the Tramp (1955) - Although technically Lady's dog parents aren't present, she's adopted by the Darlings, who survive the movie and when are reunited with Lady at the end of the story, treat her well and even adopt Tramp.  That's all a plus for me.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  2)

Sleeping Beauty (1959) - Both of princess Aurora's parents are alive and appear to love her.  Everything bad that happens to Aurora is caused by the wicked fairy Maleficent.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  2)

101 Dalmatians (1961) - Another people/dog movie, but for me, as long as the parents survive, it's all good.  In this one, not only do they survive, but the dalmatian Pongo finds both himself and his master, Roger, a wife in the film. All of these "parents" survive, so another in the plus column.  (Potential Parents:  4 / Surviving Parents:  4)

So after ten complete full-length features, it seems that things aren't as dire as I suspected.  Although there have been a fair amount of parental deaths, the tally is actually even:

Total movies where all parents survive (if applicable): 5
Total movies where one (or more) parent dies, is already gone, or is completely absent: 5

But just like a basketball game in the NBA, just when things look even, one team goes on a run.  I'll give you three guesses as to which side does in our scenario, and you can save the other two for another time...

The Sword in the Stone (1963) - Arthur (or Wart) is an orphan.  Although Merlin becomes a mentor and grandfather-type figure to him, his parents are still gone.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  0)

The Jungle Book (1967) - Mowgli is found in a basket in the middle of the jungle, presumably abandoned by a single mother.  You wouldn't think that a married woman with a healthy husband would do such a thing, so this one goes 0 for 2.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  0)

The Aristocats (1970) - If the story ascribes parental roles to animals, I'll stick to that, so The Aristocats goes in the minus column because there's no father.  I almost put it in the plus column because late in the film the alley cat O'Malley proposes to Duchess, but she declines.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  1)

Robin Hood (1973) - This is a tough one, because Robin's parents are never mentioned, and since he's an adult, I don't know if it's fair to assume, even if his parents are dead, that he's what you'd normally think of as an orphan.  No other main character's parents are mentioned either, although in the Errol Flynn Robin Hood movie, Maid Marian is an orphan.  This one's a push.  (Potential Parents:  N/A / Surviving Parents:  N/A)

With The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) being another collection of short tales, albeit all with Winnie the Pooh themes, I'm not going to count it.  I did some research, though, and couldn't find any mention whatsoever of Christopher Robin's parents, although the character of Christopher was based on A.A. Milne's own son, and Milne and his wife were together until his death.  Since the Pooh stories are all figments of the fictional Christopher's imagination, there's no reason to assume he had lost a parent.  But if you really wanted to be a stickler, you could point out that Roo has a mother, Kanga, but no father.  Anyway, moving on...

The Rescuers (1977) - No ambiguity here - Penny, the lead character is an orphan.  You find that out in the first two minutes of the movie.  Whew!  That one was easy.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  0)

The Fox and the Hound (1981) - While there is no mention of the hound, Copper's, parents, the fox, Tod, loses his mother and becomes an orphan when she is killed by a hunter.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  0)

The Black Cauldron (1985) - The lead character, Taran, is an orphan.  He does have a duo guardians, but they're a pale replacement for parents.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  0)

The Great Mouse Detective (1986) - A young mouse, Olivia, has presumably already lost her mom when her dad gets kidnapped.  Luckily, though, with the help of the Sherlock Holmes  inspired Basil, they rescue him by movie's end.  Still no mom, though.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  1)

Oliver and Company (1988) - Based on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, this movie stays true to the spirit of the book and is therefore full of orphans.  The total number of missing parents could reach the hundreds, but for our sake, we'll just count Oliver and Dodger.  (Potential Parents:  4 / Surviving Parents:  0)

The Little Mermaid (1989) - Even with the renaissance of Disney animation, parents didn't fare any better.  Ariel's mother is dead, and while Eric's price status makes you assume that at least one parent is still alive, there's no mention of either - ever.  (Potential Parents:  4 / Surviving Parents:  2)

The Rescuers Down Under (1990) - The lead character, while not an orphan like Penny in the original, has no father.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  1)

Beauty and the Beast (1991) - Belle's mother is dead, leaving her with a loving, but absent-minded father.  Although it isn't specifically mentioned in the movie, the book that it's based on says that the Beast's father died when he was a boy.  (Potential Parents:  4 / Surviving Parents:  2)

Aladdin (1992) - Another orphan, Aladdin, finds his true love in Princess Jasmine.  They had things in common to talk about during dinner dates - her mom is dead as well.  (Potential Parents:  4 / Surviving Parents:  1)

The Lion King (1994) - At the beginning, the lion prince Simba has two loving parents. But his father, Mufasa, in an effort to save Simba from a stampede of wildebeests, dies when his jealous brother, Scar, hurls him back down directly in the path of the stampede.  The episode scars poor Simba for years, before he finally comes back and hurls the treacherous Scar into a bunch of starving hyenas.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  1)

Pocahontas (1995) - Another mother has already passed away, and the title character is left with only a father.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  1)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) - The disfigured Quasimodo is an orphan who has been "raised" by his life-long guardian, Judge Frollo.  Frollo is an evil man, and at the end of the film, falls to his death from the roof of the cathedral.  Although I won't count him as a dead parent, it's still another death surrounding Quasimodo.  Bummer.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  0)

Hercules (1997) - I'm tempted to give this one two in the plus column, partly to make up for the shellacking that the plus side is taking, but mostly because Hercules has two sets of parents that survive.  His parents on Mount Olympus as well as his adopted human parents make it through the whole film.  After fifteen films in a row (not counting the above-mentioned Robin Hood and Winnie the Pooh), Disney finally decided that it has a group of parents worthy for the end credits.  (Potential Parents:  4 / Surviving Parents:  2)

Mulan (1998) - Mulan's parents are both alive and very supportive of their daughter.  She loves them so much that she takes her father's place (in disguise) when the men of China are conscripted to fight the invading Huns.  The only parental death noted is that of the father of Mulan's commanding officer, Li Shang.  Even so, this one goes on the plus side.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  2)

Tarzan (1999)  - Well, that didn't last very long, did it?  Tarzan quickly becomes an orphan when his parents are killed by an evil leopard.  He's adopted by a gorilla whose husband originally doesn't want him, but after being shot late in the film by humans, accepts Tarzan as his son with his dying breath.  And I won't even get into the fact that Jane most likely doesn't have a mother... (Potential Parents:  4 / Surviving Parents:  1)

Fantasia (2000) - The most recent of films that's a collection of short vignettes, I won't count Fantasia 2000 for either side.

Dinosaur (2000) - In this CG animated movie, the lead dinosaur Aladar's mother is forced to abandon her eggs during an attack by predators.  One of her eggs is carried off by a pterodactyl where it hatches and the dinosaur is raised by a family of lemurs (of which there is no father).  (Potential Parents:  4 / Surviving Parents:  1)

The Emperor's New Groove (2000) - Since he's the teenage emperor of the Inca empire, it's clear that Kusco's parents are dead.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  0)

Atlantis:  The Lost Empire (2001) - The parents of the lead character, Milo, are never mentioned, so my initial thought was that Atlantis would be a push.  However, the mother of the Atlantean princess, Kida, sacrificed herself to protect her people from a tsunami.  That tips the scales in favor of another negative outcome for parents.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  1)

Lilo & Stitch (2002) - Stitch was created, much like Pinocchio, so there are no real parents for him.  Lilo, on the other hand, is an orphan being raised by her sister.  I don't care how much fun you can have with a crazy alien while listening to Elvis songs, it still sucks to not have any parents.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  0)

Treasure Planet (2002) - Teenager Jim Hawkins tries to help his mother run an inn, but is distracted by his calling to explore the far reaches of space.  In a montage later in the film, we see that an indifferent father finally left without warning, leaving his wife and young son to fend for themselves.  While he didn't die, it may have been better for poor Jim if he had.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  Technically 2, but really 1)

Brother Bear (2003) - The plot is a bit difficult to parse down into a sentence or two, so check out the Wikipedia plot if you're curious.  Simply, though, one of the main characters, Koda, loses his mom to a human tribesman.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  1)

Home on the Range (2004) - There are no real parental roles in this film, positive or negative, so my first inclination is that Home on the Range would be a push.  But the lead character, Maggie, has a husband, Bob, so kids could be a part of their future.  I know it's a reach, but this one's a plus.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  2)

Chicken Little (2005)  - Chicken Little has a dad, Buck Cluck, but sadly there's no mother mentioned.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  1)

Meet the Robinsons (2007) - Abandoned by his mother at an orphanage as as infant, Lewis never had a chance to know either parent.  His best fried (and later, in an alternate timeline, enemy) Goob, is also an orphan.  Happily for both, the end of the movie shows them both being adopted by what appear to be happy and loving parents.  Although I'd love to give some credit for the plus side, an orphan is still an orphan, and the trauma can't be minimized.  I will give them credit in the parent tally, though... (Potential Parents:  4 / Surviving Parents:  2)

Bolt (2008) - Penny has a mother, but no mention of a father (finally a break for you moms!)  Penny's mother may be a little meek, but she fiercely defends her daughter at the end of the movie and is supportive throughout, making the best of her single parent situation.  Still a negative, but a positive negative, if that makes any sense.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  1)

The Princess and the Frog (2009) - Tiana grows up with both parents in a loving and supportive household.  By the time she's an adult, Tiana's father has passed away, although it's unclear as to exactly when he died.  Although Tiana misses her father, she was raised by both parents to be a strong and hard-working person who values her family.  Another positive negative.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  1)

Tangled (2010) - Originally, I was going to post this one under the negative, because Rapunzel's "mother" dies at the end.  But then I had a discussion with my wife and she brought up some great points.  Gothel was never Rapunzel's mother, even though Rapunzel considered her so.  Gothel was Rapunzel's demented abductor, consistently lying and manipulating her captive for her own selfish gain.  Rapunzel's parents not only were alive and loved her, but reminded the kingdom every year that she was not forgotten by releasing thousands of floating lanterns on her birthday.  When reunited with her parents at the end of the film, the animation is breathtaking in the way they convey that love they have for her with only their eyes.  So while Flynn was an orphan, he's an adult at the start of the movie and by the end of the movie, he's wholeheartedly welcomed into of the royal family.  A big fat one on the plus side!

So after seventy-three years and fifty animated features (9 of which I'm not counting for above-mentioned reasons, and one, Robin Hood, which I counted as a push), what's the final count?

Total movies where all parents survive (if applicable):  10
Total movies where one (or more) parent dies, is already gone, or is completely absent: 30

At a 3:1 advantage, that's a staggering number of films where children are left at least partially parentless.  It's too large a number to be dismissed as coincidental.  The evidence is too strong to support that notion, and just in case you didn't think I took this case far enough, let's look at some other examples of animated features.

Disney isn't the only animation studio that has released features.  Throughout the decades, scores of other animated movies were released.  I won't go into the details of all of those, but I will talk about the most recent animated features from a few other studios.  With the debut of Toy Story in 1995, Pixar released the first animated feature done completely with computer animation.  Dreamworks animation followed suit in 1998 with the debut of their own computer animated feature, Antz (and have released a total of twenty-one in the years since). Even Sony Pictures Animation has released three films, with many more in the works.

Since my entire idea was focused on Disney movies, I won't get into the Dreamworks+ or Sony movies (someone else can tackle that project), but Pixar's another story.  From the start, Pixar was a financial (and creative) partner of Disney, and is now wholly owned by them.  The creative team at Disney was instrumental in helping shape Toy Story into the benchmark movie it became.  Even though there were lots of Pixar/Disney similarities (Pixar head John Lasseter even worked for Disney out of college), the Pixar story brain trust developed independently of the Disney studio.  Naturally, I wondered if the guys at Pixar developed the same kind of storylines on their own.  So to be over-the-top thorough (and because I love Pixar movies), I'll break down each of their movies to see where the parental peril lies.

 Toy Story (1995), Toy Story 2 (1999), Toy Story 3 (2010) - It makes sense to group the trilogy together, since they share the same group of characters.  Since none of the toys have parents, per se, (although I'm tempted to give the potatoheads credit for "adopting" the aliens), Andy's the one with the main family unit.  Andy's father is never mentioned in any of the movies, so we can assume Andy's parents are most likely divorced.  My wife made another really good point in reference to Toy Story 3.  She notes that at the end of the movie, Bonnie, who inherits all of Andy's toys, is shown playing in her yard.  We also see her mother, who we knew from earlier in the movie, as well as her father, who's raking leaves in the background.  She argued (very persuasively, I might add) that I should give the filmmakers some credit for that parental relationship.  I agreed, so the Toy Story trilogy will get a minus mark for Andy's family, and half a plus for Bonnie's.  (Potential Parents:  4 / Surviving Parents:  3)

A Bug's Life (1998) - After doing some (kinda gross) research, I discovered that male ants die shortly after mating.  So Princess Atta and Dot most likely never knew their father.  Mother Nature's a cruel mistress, but this one would still count in the minus column (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  1)

Monsters, Inc. (2001) - It's clear that monsters have parents (based on the kids jump-roping on the street and the kids touring the factory, and Mike mention's Sully's mom), but the idea of any of those parents being gone is never addressed.  Sully's dad could've very well been sitting next to Sully's mom in the family room when she was talking to Mike (I know my Mom did most of the talking for my parents).  I know in science, lack of proof is proof of a negative, but I still think I'm going to put Monsters, Inc. on the plus side.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  Most likely 2)

Finding Nemo (2003) - Marlin and Coral are talking about their family's future when Coral is killed in a barracuda attack.  Deeply traumatized and vowing to save the only surviving child from harm, Marlin becomes an overprotective single parent.  Dory might have a family, but she can't quite remember... (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  1)

The Incredibles (2004) - Both Parr parents survive the movie, despite numerous attempts to kill them off by villains, giving nothing but support and help to their children.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  2)

Cars (2006) - Very much like Robin Hood, Cars doesn't really address the parental situation at all.  No mention of any of the character's parents are made, either alive or dead.  Although it appears that Ramone and Flo are probably married, and there's a very happy little kid car waving a flag at the last race, there's no mention one way or the other about parents.  So Cars is another push.  (Potential Parents:  ? / Surviving Parents:  ?)

Ratatouille (2007) - We find out early that it's just Remy, his brother Emille and his dad.  No mom.  (Potential Parents:  2 / Surviving Parents:  1)

WALL-E (2008) - Robots don't have parents, so my first thought was that this one wouldn't really count.  But upon closer inspection, it appears that in 800 years, humans will abdicate the bulk of their parenting duties to robots.  I don't think that's a very good example to set, so this one seems like a negative to me.  But the future looks brighter, because when the children were put in danger, Mary and John put their laziness aside (and their bodies in harm's way) to help save them. (Potential Parents:  Lots / Surviving Parents:  Lots of apathetic ones)

Up (2009) - Russell mentions, and has great affection for, his mother.  At the end of the film, she shows up waving happily during his Wilderness Explorers ceremony.  His father, by Russell's own admission, is much more distant who Russell says is "really busy all the time."  But based on the Disney/Pixar parental loss experience, Russell's doing okay.  His dad may figure it out and realize he needs to be a better father, and since he's still alive, there's a chance he just might.  Distant does not equal dead, so Up's a plus in my book.

So after sixteen years and eleven animated features#, here's how Pixar's scorecard works out:

Total movies where all parents survive (if applicable): 3 1/2
Total movies where one (or more) parent dies, is already gone, or is completely absent: 5

Once again, there's a preponderance of movies where parents are conspicuously absent.  Starting off with the single parent household in Toy Story, John Lasseter and company have continued (mostly) to follow the Disney method of storytelling.

But after all of these words and all of my bloated discussion, the obvious question remains.

Why?  Why did Walt Disney, and after his death the Walt Disney Animation Studio (and even the folks at Pixar and Dreamworks), persistently tell stories that are fraught with parental loss? I'll explore the "why" in my next post...

In the radio business, they call that a tease, designed to leave you hanging and wanting to wait through the commercial break to hear the rest.  Normally I wouldn't do that to you (I always thought it was a mean trick, albeit an effective one), but I've already written far too much on the subject, and I need time to write far too much more on the "why" issue.  So if you're interested, check back in a couple of days for my detailed look into the psychology of animated movies and fairy tales.

* To argue the other side, though, Dumbo was delivered to his mother by a stork, so there was no official pregnancy or birth, so you could reasonably put this one in the plus column if you wanted to.  But since there aren't two parents in the story, I counted this one on the minus side.

+ Okay, I couldn't help it.  I won't do them all, but I'll quickly do the top five grossing Dreamworks animated features.  In Shrek (2001), Shrek has no family unit whatsoever.  His eventual bride, Fiona, though, has two parents (although her father becomes homicidal at the prospect of his beloved daughter marrying an ogre).  Kung Fu Panda (2008) tells the story of Po, a panda being raised by his "father," a supportive goose.  There's no mention of his mother, and they never address the whole goose/panda bear parental situation.  2005's Madagascar has no parents for any of the animals, but the sequel shows that the lion Alex assumed he was an orphan who ended up in New York's Central Park zoo.  The sequel also reveals that both of his parents were alive the entire time and the family was reunited.  The great movie How to Train Your Dragon (2010) tells the story of a meek Viking, Hiccup, awkwardly living in a single-parent household with his father.  His mother died, presumably in a dragon attack.  The fifth top-grossing film, Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) doesn't really mention the family units of any of the monsters, or aliens.  The giant human in the film, Susan, is an adult whose family isn't mentioned.  So you see, it's not just a Disney or Pixar thing...

# I also have to mention the stunning success of Pixar, both critically and at the box office. Out of the eleven movies they've released, they've amassed forty Academy Award nominations, winning ten of them (not including John Lasseter's Special Achievement award for Toy Story).  Since the Best Animated Feature category was created, with only one exception (Cars), every time a Pixar film has been nominated in that category, it's won that Oscar.  Up (and then Toy Story 3) became the first movies nominated in the Best Picture Category since Beauty and the Beast in 1991.  Commercially, their success has been every bit as impressive.  The global box office totals for the same eleven movies is just over $6.6 billion, for a staggering average of $600,000,000 per film.  The lowest gross for a Pixar film is the original Toy Story, which still brought in $352,000,000 at the global box office.  Their run of eleven straight hits is unprecedented in Hollywood history and shows no signs of slowing down with 2011's Cars 2.  I could do a huge post just on the admiration I have for Pixar.

The "Why" Behind It All...

The "what" of something is always fun, but in reality the "why" is a much more important question.  It's very easy to see the evidence in my previous essay and say that Walt Disney must've had something against parents, mothers in particular, since he killed them off with such frequency.  During my research I found an interesting post about Disney's tendency to have mothers die in his movies (I apologize in advance for the unnecessary pictures of Angelina Jolie, Heidi Klum and Halle Berry at the top of the post), which takes the stance that Disney is doing harm to generations of children with their storylines.  At face value, you might want to agree with those folks who claim that Disney (and by example, Pixar & Dreamworks) has something against parents.  But that's only looking at the part of the iceberg sticking out of the water.  I wanted to go deeper and see if I could find the more substantial meaning.

In reading Neal Gablers lengthy (and excellent) biography on Walt Disney, I read nothing to indicate that Walt ever spoke publicly, or even privately, that he had a deep-seeded hatred for parents, explaining why he would have killed them off as often as possible in his animated features.  I did discover quite a bit about Walt's childhood and his relationship with his own mother and father.  Walt had a complicated relationship with his parents.  His father Elias was a tough, conservative man who ruled the family and put the fear of God into his children.  His volatile temper often resulted in beatings for the sons who disobeyed or disappointed him.  The beatings would be considered child abuse in today's world (and should've been back then) and undoubtedly had a lasting effect on Walt's psychological development.  Often arguing with his father, Walt ended up becoming the target of Elias' wrath.  Finally, at the age of fourteen, with the moral support of his older brother Roy, Walt stood up to his father.  After berating Walt for another moment of insolence, Elias ordered him down to the basement for a beating.  As Walt headed down, Roy urged him to stand up to their father.  Once downstairs, just as Elias was about to strike him with a hammer handle, Walt grabbed his father's arm, holding it in place and removing the hammer.  When Elias tried to hit Walt with his other hand, the stronger Walt was able to grab that arm as well.  Walt's father cried in shame and never touched him in anger again.  When Walt went into animation for a career, Elias thought it was folly, dismissing his son's chosen profession as a waste of time.

Walt's mother, on the other hand, was the flip side of the parental coin.  Neal Gabler has a passage that sums up Walt's mother and her importance to the Disney family:

It was Flora who provided the ballast for the Disneys—Flora who managed the money for Elias, made most of the children’s clothes and sewed their quilts, cooked their meals and encouraged their reading, connived with the children, and always exercised restraint and an even temper, and for all these things she would be beloved in their memories. And it was Flora alone who could tease her husband out of what his children called his “peevishness” and calm his raging storms, though she did so carefully, without confronting or countermanding him. Walt thought her saintly.
Flora was supportive of Walt and his career where Elias was not.  Due most likely to the strains of his childhood and the emotional distance between Walt and his parents, particularly his father, Walt wasn't close to them as an adult.  He rarely saw them and wrote them infrequently.  He and Roy did, however, buy their parents a house in Los Angeles after the success of Snow White in 1938.  Elias, finally seeing that his son's hard work and talent had made him a success, was full of praise for the gift, telling his cousin, "I think it's a great day in my life.  I don't expect to have another like it." 

The house was a nice three bedroom home, that came with the nice feature of a centralized heating system.  Not long after, however, the heating system began to malfunction.  Walt and his brother Roy sent a workman from the studio to fix it, but in the end, he only ended up making it worse.  The recirculating air ended up being sent back into the house, rather than outside.  With that recirculating air being filled with carbon monoxide, the episode ended in tragedy when Walt's mother was overtaken with the odorless fumes and died.  His father and their housekeeper barely escaped with their lives.  Afterward, both Roy and Walt were racked with guilt, since they had been the ones who had sent the workman to fix the problem.  Walt, who normally kept his emotions to himself, was inconsolable.  It was something he never got over for the rest of his life.

But does his relationship with his parents exhibit a hatred strong enough to explain the subject matter of so many of the Disney animated movies.  As far as the relationship with his father, possibly, but probably not.  Even though he was abused by his father as a child, he still maintained a cordial, if somewhat strained, relationship with Elias as an adult.  If anything, I think he felt more pity for his father than outright anger.  For his mother Flora, it's clear that Walt loved her dearly and was devastated by her death.  You would think that he wouldn't want to dwell on those feelings (especially the guilt that racked him) by intentionally making movie after movie that mirrored that storyline.

And later in life, as a parent himself, Walt was considered by his family to be a good father.  Although he was a workaholic of sorts, when he was home, he spent quality time with both his wife and children.  He was considered generally a good person by friends and colleagues, even with his sometimes volatile temper.  He had a good sense of humor about himself and fully acknowledged the dichotomy between his public persona and his private one.  He never really believed his own press, poking fun at himself with business associates and friends alike.

In all of my research, I don't think a reasonable case can be made that the storylines in Walt's movies were some sort of retribution against parents.  There just isn't any proof of that.  So if it wasn't an innate hatred of parents, mothers in particular, then the "why" question still remains.  Why were these stories so filled with parental loss?  Where did it all start?

For the fairytales we know today, it started in Germany in 1812, with the publication of a Children's and Household Tales+ by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, containing eighty-six stories of local German folklore and "fairy tales" that had previously only been passed on verbally from generation to generation.  Jacob and Wilhelm talked to scores of mostly women throughout Germany, asking them to tell the stories they told their own children.  Then they basically just transcribed scores of the ones that were told to them.  Those stories ran the gamut in terms of subject matter, from simple animal stories that contained a single lesson, to much more involved (and sometimes very dark) stories.  So it was here that I started looking to see just how prevalent the idea of parental loss may have been in those stories.

To try and determine how common that theme was in Grimm fairytales, I got out a book I have that contained 78 of the collected stories.  I selected ten to examine, completely at random.  They were:
  • The Adventures of Aladdin
  • [Chico and the Crane]
  • [The Conference of Mice]
  • The Flying Trunk
  • Hansel and Gretel
  • [The Horse and the Wolf]
  • The Little Pear Girl
  • [The Ox and the Frog]
  • Sayed's Adventures
  • The Wise Little Girl
The four bracketed [] stories were all animal allegories and very short, so parents weren't a factor in them.  For the other six, though, every one of them had a situation where a parent was dead or conspicuously absent.  Aladdin's father was dead.  Erik, the main character in "The Flying Trunk," had already lost his mother as the story started and his father dies in the middle of the story.  "Hansel and Gretel" is awash in horrible parental behavior, topped off with the fact that their birth mother is dead, replaced by a stepmother who is truly reprehensible (and who also later dies).  In "The Little Pear Girl," the title character's father is so afraid of coming up short on the required shipment of pears to the king that he abandons his daughter in a basket to make up for the weight.  No mention of her mother, but we can presume she's dead.  The title character in "Sayed's Adventures" loses his mother as a teenager. In "The Wise Little Girl," one of the lead characters, Ivan, has lost his wife and so it's just him and his daughter.

In all honesty, I was a little stunned.  I figured that parental loss would be a theme that was addressed in the stories, but I had no idea how prevalent it was.  So yet again, there was more "what" but no "why."  I did more research and dug deeper.  There had to be a reason these kinds of stories, in particular, were the ones that stood the test of time and became the ones passed on from generation to generation, finally landing on paper thanks to the Grimms.

I found some theories in my research and came up with a couple of my own that might explain why so many of these stories contain tales of parental loss.  If we accept that modern fairytales are still structurally based on the fairytales the Grimms documented, themselves the product of generations of storytellers passing these stories on orally, we need to realize how different the world was in those days.  Here are some of the reasons fairytales mention parental loss so often:


My coworker, Julie, said it best, "It's not interesting if the story is just like normal life."  And she's right.  The thing that makes these fairytales interesting (and worth passing down) is the fantastic nature of the stories.  Conflict abounds, with children and adults being put in perilous circumstances again and again.  Very much like the reality TV that today's America is fascinated with, where we want to watch stories that are compelling.  Reality TV is a bit of a misnomer, because what we really crave is interesting reality TV.  We don't want to watch Kate Gosselin and her kids sitting around the house doing their homework, or watching some other reality TV show.  We want to watch them feeding crocodiles in Australia, or other things we wish we could do, too.  The same thing applies to fairytales.  If the stories weren't compelling, they would've fallen by the wayside through the generations, replaced with other fanciful stories that were more interesting.  In all likelihood, this is exactly what happened through the centuries.


Another factor in the absence or death of parents and parental figures in fairy tales is the oral tradition with which these stories were passed down from generation to generation.  Think about it - when you tell a story to someone, you usually rely only on your memory to transmit all of the details.  So you condense the story, making it easier to remember.  Ancillary people, who may have been involved in the story but had no real impact, get lost in the retelling, often completely vanishing from the story.  Other elements may be exaggerated for dramatic effect.  After a few tellings, the story that is told may vary dramatically from the actual events (like the kid's game, Telephone).  Since almost all fairytales were passed along verbally, rather than written down, they could've very well been affected by generation upon generation of "telephoning."  One less parent is one less thing you have to remember when you're telling a story.

At the time the Grimms were putting together their books of collected fairytales, the average life expectancy (this was around 1800) was 40 years*, whereas in today's modern world it's 67 years.  Since all of these tales had been passed down from previous generations, it's most likely that the life expectancy when the stories were actually created was even less.  In today's world, life at 23 can be a time of trying to figure out what you're going to do with the rest of your life, without too much pressure to live in the "real world."  Back in 1800, 23 was an age where, most likely, your third child was about to be born and you were working in a factory or on a farm.  The working conditions in those factories and on those farms were often deplorable (there was no OSHA or unions back then) and safety wasn't much of a concern vs. productivity.  So to project the ideals of a modern society on the age when these stories were created is irresponsible.  Life was very different back then.

Women were most often married in their teens, with children coming soon after.  Many of those women died in childbirth, while many of their husbands may have died in battle.  To put it in perspective, in the United States today, there are on average 15 maternal deaths per 100,000 births.  Back in 1800, mothers died in childbirth at a rate of 1,000 - 1,500 per 100,000 births.  That's a lot less mothers around, especially considering families weren't today's units with 2.3 kids in them.  Average family size was often triple that number.  For fathers, it was the perils of war that often lead to their deaths.  In the Iraq war, in just over eight years, 4452 American soldiers have lost their lives (I'm not discounting Iraqi lives lost, it's just hard to break down how many have died in combat with American soldiers vs. been killed by their own countrymen in terrorist attacks).    At the battle of Gettysburg, around 7,900 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, and that battle lasted only three days.  The number of American fathers was decimated in just seventy-two hours.  Please understand that I don't mean to be dismissive discussing so many tragic deaths, I'm just trying to illustrate the world at the time these stories were passed down versus our modern world.

Children didn't have the luxury of spending their twenties "finding themselves."  They had the obligation of taking care of their families, both immediate and extended, often in difficult circumstances and at a much earlier age.  Children needed to learn that life was short and hard, because life was short and hard.  There wasn't time to coddle them - too much was at stake.  It's a callus way of treating children, but these life lessons were essential for those young children to learn and these generational fairytales were, in my opinion, one of the least harmful ways of teaching those life lessons.


Alongside the theory about life expectancy is the idea that fairytales were needed to teach valuable life lessons to children that needed to learn them.  The physiology of a child's brain (and the resulting psychology that develops from it) plays a huge role in the structure, emotional complexity and storylines of fairytales.  Adults are able to process intricate emotional complexities in the stories they read, but children's brains haven't developed the sophistication that would enable them to do so.  Because of that, a lesson designed specifically for a child needs to be much simpler at its emotional core and in its storytelling. 

On a psychological level, children don't have the ability to process characters that have both good and bad traits.  It's also easier for them to comprehend simple characters, which is why so many characters in fairytales are one dimensional.  These stories teach children that not everyone in the real world is good, no matter how much they'd like them to be.  Kids are trusting and want to believe the best in everyone, and as adults, we know that's not the case.  Children don't know that yet, and they need to be taught the lesson in the least traumatic way possible.  Fairtytales can often be an effective and valuable tool to teach those life lessons. 

Psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote extensively about the idea of a collective unconscious, which refers to a universally shared unconscious knowledge.  This theory would explain the lasting popularity of fairytales, since the subjects they address are unconsciously attractive to those who hear them.  It would also explain why different cultures all over the world have fairy tales with similar themes.  I found an interesting masters thesis by Amy Dorsey that discusses this.  She writes, "Fairytales give children an outlet for, as well as a way to work through, many of the unconscious drives that cause dilemmas in their lives."  So they teach children that hardships and trauma will happen, but that these obstacles are not insurmountable (a lesson a lot of adults would benefit from learning).

Oftentimes, children only learn when there are dire (to them) consequences.  In their real lives, it may be as simple as losing a toy for the afternoon or a trip to time out, but to them, each of these is considered a horrible punishment.  But in story form, since children aren't living out the stories themselves, the consequences have to be even more severe in order for them to relate.  Everything in a child's mind is emotionally black or white, and sometimes a death in a story can be seen in much the same light as something much less severe.  There are no shades of black.

The emotional life lessons learned from fairytales are important.  Amy Dorsey again writes, "The psychological content of fairytales can help young children deal with fears, feelings, and impulses they may have no other way of working through.  By relating different parts of his own personality to different characters, a child can begin to sort them out and understand himself."  The fact that some of these stories may cause a certain amount of trauma to a child, while undeniably a negative initial effect, can end in an overall positive result, because children will eventually face some sort of trauma in their lives.  Fairytales give children the opportunity to go through some of these traumas vicariously through other characters, and may help them work through their own traumas in a (hopefully) more constructive way.

All of the above theories try to explain the "why" of fairytales, but one thing they don't address is the potential negative effects that these kinds of stories can have on children.  I've always thought that one-sided arguments do a disservice to the overall debate, because they immediately polarize people into the "agree with" camp and the "disagree with" camp.  I think a healthy and reasoned debate, presenting both sides, is essential to actual resolution to a subject.  I would be doing a disservice if I didn't address that as beneficial as the life lessons learned in fairy tales and animated movies can be, the negative flip side has a reasonable argument, and deserves to be presented as well.

I found dozens of comments on different discussion boards and forums where people have not learned life lessons from these fairytales and animated features, but instead have been traumatized by them.  Here's a brief sampling of some of them:
  • I was traumatized by Bambi as a child.  As a result, I have never seen it since, nor has my son seen it.  Studies show the #1 fear children have is their parents dying or leaving them.
  • I have just taken my daughter to the umpteenth Disney film that begins with the death of a mother, and this time they threw in a dead brother, too.  She was distraught all the way home, and the only way I could calm her down was to have her write a letter to the Disney Co. complaining about their unceasing insistence on killing off moms mostly, or other loved ones.
  • So what does Disney have against parents? If the main character isn’t an orphan at the beginning of the movie, odds are they will be by the end. I'm a little scared to go to Disney World now, for fear that one of us won't come back alive...
When I saw Bambi as a child, I wasn't traumatized, but I do find it entirely reasonable for someone else to have been.  Emotionally sensitive children have an empathy with these characters and so when someone dies, they take it to heart.  They relate so much that they begin projecting the events of the movie onto parts of their own life.  Often it ends with a question similar to "Mommy, are you going to die?"  It's completely reasonable for a child to make these connections, so many people in society are crying out for an end to telling our children these kinds of fairytales.

Another criticism of fairy tales (and the resulting animated movies) is that they generally portray women as people in need of protection and saving, not able to provide for themselves.  Again, it's a valid criticism.  Looking at especially the early Disney animated features, since both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty needed princes to save them, you see women who are completely dependent on men.  What's interesting is that in the original Grimm stories published, there were a number of tales with strong leading women.  I found that to be true in my research, particularly with the story "The Wise Little Girl."  The girl in the title is smart and confident, and the most moral character in the story.  Even a modern girl would find an exemplary life to emulate in that story.  It was only with later editions of the Grimm stories where these characters were removed to suit the patriarchal norms of the time.

The more modern Disney animated features shine as a more positive example for children in general, and little girls in particular.  Ariel in The Little Mermaid showed signs of independence, and it was Ariel who did the saving when she dragged Eric ashore after his ship sunk.  My wife, Jennifer, said that it was really Belle in Beauty and the Beast who became the first leading lady who was a shining example to little girls all over the world, and I heartily agree.  Belle was the emotional center of her family and the cornerstone of the household.   It was her emotional strength that eventually showed the Beast that true love could be found.  She was an avid reader, curious and intelligent, all ideals that were in contrast to the subserviant role that society put young women in at the time.  She was different, and she was okay with that.  She wasn't going to bend to a society that told her that Gaston was the proper husband for her.  She held out for what she wanted and what she deserved, and she was rewarded in the end.  The trend of stronger female characters has continued in the newest Disney animated features as well, with the hard working and morally strong Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, and even the naive, yet sure of herself Rapunzel in Tangled.

While the negative criticism I found has some validity, I think that in the case of fairytales and animated features, the positive impact that these stories have on children outweighs these negative aspects.  To use a personal example, our own two boys watch Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks animated movies, and I think they learn valuable life lessons in them.  They learn that life can be difficult, but that through hard work and perseverance, a "happily ever after" ending is within their grasp.  Even at a young age, children can experience loss.  Usually it's grandparent or a pet, and for them, it's a substantial emotional blow that they have to deal with.  These stories help them deal with those emotions and realize that the children in these stories have experienced what they have, and emerged through the trauma stronger, and better prepared to deal with the rest of life's difficulties.

So for those looking for a comprehensive explanation as to why fairytales, and by extension, animated features, have such a prevalence of parental loss, I think it's clear there isn't one "magic bullet" theory that covers it all.  Just like in real life, the cause is multifaceted and complex, even if the stories are not.  It's a combination of various factors that existed when these stories were created and passed down as well as the nature of storytelling itself.  Each of the theories detailed above is a part of the puzzle that, when completed, explains why our fairy tales are the way they are.

Whether it's the collective unconscious that propels these kinds of storylines forward or a more conscious nod to tradition, it's clear that the structure of fiarytales has been around for centuries and will most likely be around for centuries more.  But it's also conceivable that just as the patriarchal societal norms that excised many of the stories that featured strong female figures from some editions of the Grimm's fairytales, today's more progressive views may lead to another shift in some of the characteristics of fairytales to be passed on to future generations.  So instead of the more meek Snow White and Sleeping Beauty that needed saving, the stronger characters of Belle from Beauty and the Beast and Tiana from The Princess and the Frog may be the ones passed on to our children's children and so on.

No matter what the future holds, it's clear that fairytales will continue to be passed on to our descendents all over the globe.  While there may be a better way to teach these life lessons to children, fairytales have become an ingrained part of the human experience.  All we can hope, as a society, is that the children that hear these stories decades or even centuries from now will learn the valuable life lessons they contain. 

+ Disney, both Walt and the animation studio after his death, have used Grimm's fairy tales as the basis for their movies.  Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Princess and the Frog and Tangled were all based on Grimm tales.

* People often use these numbers to portray that everyone dropped dead on their 41st birthday, and if you lived to 67 back then, you were ancient.  That's not entirely true.  I did a fair amount of research on this (darn you, thoroughness!) and discovered that the 40 year life expectancy in Europe in 1800 included infant deaths as well.  Early childhood was perilous in those days, and many many children unfortunately didn't live to see their fifth birthday, due to tough conditions, lack of food, and disease.  If you did make it past your fifth birthday in 1800, your life expectancy jumped to 48 years.  Even more interesting is the fact that if you lived in an upper-class English household and you made it past your 21st birthday, life expectancy matched today's 67 years!  So while life expectancy was much lower back then, it's helpful to look at the complete picture.

Now What?

As I neared the end of the entries on the Top 100 Songs of My Lifetime, the subject came up as to what I was going to do next.  Would my blog become postings of whatever came to mind?  Would I stop altogether?  Another Top 100 list of some sort?  What's next?

I thought about it a great deal and my brother, Scott came up with the idea that stuck.  He was enjoying the format and the level of detail I did for the Top 100 songs, so he thought it would work really well if I did the same thing for the Top 100 movies, too.  It didn't take me long to realize that I agreed.  That conversation happened a few months ago, and I've been working behind the scenes on putting that list together.  It was a fun (and frustrating) process that took me a long time. 

The rules I had were similar to the ones I had for my music list.  I would only choose movies that were released during my lifetime.  I also tried to not choose too many movies from the last year or two, because they might seem better than they were just because they were newer*.  On choosing my music list, I didn't want a ton of songs by a single artist, so I generally chose just one song from a band to be its representative on my list.  I could've done the same thing with directors or maybe actors on my movie list, but movies are so much more collaborative that it seemed a bit more arbitrary (then again, my whole process is probably a bit arbitrary). 

Just like the songs, it started out as a much larger list (this one began as 206 movies).  Slowly the list shrunk, as favorites (and great movies) fell by the wayside, unable to withstand the argument that it was better than the movie above it on the list.  Finally, after about a month, I had the list done.  I can promise that it will probably be in a constant state of flux, just like my music list was, with one entry rising or falling based on further reflection.  I'm sure there will be movies that will have you nodding in agreement, others that will make you scratch your head, or even others where you shake your head in disappointment.  I do hope, however, that even if you don't particularly like a movie on my list, that you will give it a fair shake when you're reading my essay on it.

I'm really looking forward to another project.  Stay tuned.... 

But before I get to the first in another list that will take me probably another year and a half, I wanted to do a post on something that I found fascinating.  So in a couple of days, I'll post my essay entitled, "Walt Disney Wants to Kill Your Parents (not really, but kinda...)," in which I look at the propensity in Disney movies to have parents die.  I did a lot of research and what started out as a simple look into something I found curious, ended up being just short of a master's thesis on the subject.  Curiosity turned into a little bit of obsession, as I tried to find an answer to "why?" 

I hope you enjoy reading it, because again, I enjoyed writing it.  And check back in a couple of weeks for the first entry in the Top 100 Movies of My Lifetime.

* I remember seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 and saying it was the best movie ever!  Then I saw ET the next summer, and that became the best movie ever!  The next summer, Return of the Jedi was undoubtedly the best movie ever!  Of course, 1984 was the year of Ghostbusters, so of course.............