More than half of all Disney movies since 1937 have featured a primary character with a dead, missing, or single parent. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has sat through Bambi (dead mom), Dumbo (imprisoned mom, absentee dad), or Tarzan (both parents dead, child literally raised by animals). Belle’s dad and Andy’s mom both seem to be going it alone. And then there’s the whole topic of evil stepmothers, as seen in Cinderella, Snow White, and Enchanted. The tradition is still going strong: Frozen could hardly wait to send the seemingly decent if misguided parents of Anna and Elsa to a watery grave. Even Disney’s most high-profile recent acquisition, the Star Wars franchise, features some serious hero-with-AWOL-parents action at its core. So what’s going on here? Leighann Morris of Hopes & Fears has decided to investigate the matter with a thoughtful feature entitled “Why Are So Many Disney Parents Missing Or Dead?”
The answer, it turns out, is complicated and multifaceted. It could just be a coincidence or, more accurately, a string of dozens of coincidences over the course of 80 years. Lion King producer Don Hahn says that the issue stems from Walt Disney’s unresolved guilt over his own mother’s death. So there’s that. But folklorists such as Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are partly to blame, too, as the whole “dead parent/evil step-parent” motif is prevalent in the fairy tales that many Disney films are based on. Those age-old stories may continue to resonate with audiences for deep psychological reasons, suggest some experts. Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning And Importance Of Fairy Tales, has this whole theory about how dead moms and wicked step-moms “act as two halves of the same figure in our emotionally divided and complicated human relationships, representative of the opposite feelings of love and rejection.” So there’s that, too. Then again, the whole thing could be due to simple, economical storytelling. Since it’s largely about the bond between a son and his mother, Dumbo just flows more smoothly without some useless dad getting in the way.
Whatever the reason behind the trend, Morris’ article provides a golden opportunity to ponder the sheer amount of patricide and (especially) matricide in the Disney canon, along with a heaping helping of good old-fashioned child abandonment. Supplementing the text, the article helpfully includes several charts which group the movies into major categories: “Mothers killed and/or captured in film” (The Fox And The Hound, Finding Nemo), “Adoptive mothers and evil stepmothers” (Enchanted, Tangled), and “Single mothers and fathers” (Aladdin, Pocahontas). Whether or not this is all simply coincidental, Morris puts it best: “It’s too present to ignore.”