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It's well known that many animated Disney movie parents (at least one of a set) die, were never in the picture, or started the movie already dead.

Is this just a financial thing (like in Toy Story), or does Disney have any other reason for this?

Some examples:

  • Toy Story - Dad doesn't exist
  • The Lion King - dad dies
  • Cinderella - mom is dead, dad dies
  • Aladdin - orphan
  • Lilo and Stitch - orphans
  • The Jungle Book - orphan
  • The Little Mermaid - mom dies
  • Beauty and the Beast - motherless
  • Bambi - mom dies
  • Finding Nemo - mom dies
  • Frozen - parents die
  • Sleeping Beauty - mom is dead, evil step-mom dies
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Could you elaborate on the 'financial thing' of Toy Story? –  John Smith Optional Apr 14 at 16:10
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From what I always read, they simply couldn't afford to make Andy's father in toy story, so he simply didn't have one. Here is a link. quora.com/Toy-Story-movie-series/… –  meer2kat Apr 14 at 16:12
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Aladdin, Cinderella, Jungle Book and Bambi are not genuine Disney stories - the stories themselves existed long before the movies. –  a_horse_with_no_name Apr 14 at 16:58
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This link, and everything linked from it, might be of interest to you. Allocate a lot of time; this site is addictive. tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ConvenientlyAnOrphan –  Eric Lippert Apr 14 at 18:01
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The same pattern is even more pervasive among Comic Book heroes, particularly the earlier ones. Not sure who started it first though... –  RBarryYoung Apr 14 at 20:18

6 Answers 6

I am answering subjectively here, but I think it really comes down to evoking even more sympathy for the main characters. Not only do they often have to battle difficult circumstances (i.e. being an outcast or something similar), but they also have to deal with being alone in the world. All of this creates genuine sympathy for the protagonists.

This Daily Mail article also addressed the issue. Although they agreed with my first point, they also had this fascinating theory:

Might the death of Walt Disney's mother - and the lifelong guilt this left her son with - be the catalyst for the death of parents in Disney?

In 1938 and riding high with the proceeds from his first big screen movie Sleeping Beauty, Walt bought his mother, Flora, and his father, Elias, a house in LA as a golden wedding anniversary present.

Within days of moving in, Flora complained about the stultifying temperatures coming from the central heating boiler and her doting son arranged for a swift replacement.

Days later, Flora died from asphyxiation caused by the new, poorly-installed, boiler.

Might Walt Disney's misplaced guilt over his mother's death have led him to airbrush parents - mothers in particular - out of his works?

And has that motivation, after his death in 1966, become a Disney blueprint?

Certainly, it would explain the types of folk stories and fairytales that Disney has acquired for adaptation, even when there are numerous other traditional tales that feature a mother and father.

Finally, it's also worth noting that not all movies have dead parents. This list shows the following Disney films as having both parents alive at the end of the film:

  1. Lady and the Tramp
  2. Sleeping Beauty
  3. One Hundred and One Dalmatians
  4. Mulan
  5. The Incredibles
  6. Peter Pan
  7. Brave
  8. Lion King 2
  9. Tangled (although parent-like villain dies)
  10. Hercules

Edit:

I whipped this answer up fairly quickly and really should have expanded on a few points. As many comments under the post have indicated, this "style" is a common trope. As TV Tropes express (rather tongue-in-cheek):

Parents Are Useless. They leave you and abuse you. Good Parents are hard to come by. It appears that the only decent parents are the dead ones.

These are the parents that leave the characters behind, not by choice, early on in the story, sometimes even before the story begins. The characters are now all alone with no family. They may find a Parental Substitute, but they may not always be the best guardians.

These often heroic characters will always have fond memories of their parents. That's because these parents did everything right while they were alive. They spent time with their children and taught them invaluable life lessons that they continue to keep even to this day. Even though the parents are gone now, the actions of the parents still affect the character and keep him going.

Finally, it does make logical sense (from an animation point of view) for parents to die as it would most definitely cut down on production costs - although the life lessons learned from their deaths are obviously the main focus.

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Note that in several of those -- I have not seen them all -- though the children are not orphans, their parents are temporarily removed by forces beyond their control. –  Eric Lippert Apr 14 at 17:54
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While this is an excellent post with many good points, I think that it misses the mark slightly. It's not so much sympathy that is being culled, as it is heroic admiration. This becomes clearer when you look at other stories and story-forms where this trope commonly appears. –  RBarryYoung Apr 14 at 20:24
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@EricLippert -- you are understating your case. Except for Tramp and Brave, all the films on the non-orphan list revolve entirely around children being separated from their parents. Mulan runs away (to save the life of her father); her boyfriend's father is killed. One Hundred and One Dalmatians is all about children being kidnapped and murdered. The Darling children run away and join a community of orphans. Hercules is kidnapped from his parents as an infant and given to strangers. –  Malvolio Apr 15 at 0:32
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Never trust anyone over 40. –  mxyzplk Apr 15 at 19:20
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@Malvolio The Incredibles keeps the family mostly together for the whole movie. –  Brilliand Apr 16 at 20:28

Its not just the animated movies; Disney corporation also made a lot of live action films that have this pattern:

  • A family is damaged.
  • A child has an adventure as a result. During the adventure the child becomes more like an adult, taking responsibility for themselves and others, and ultimately becomes a hero.
  • The family is restored, or a new family is created, as a result of the child's heroism.

Why does the family have to be damaged? Because a functioning family has the parents responsibly solving the serious problems on behalf of the child. If the family unit is functioning then there is no adventure where the child has to solve a problem on their own, and hence no story.

It's the same reason why Gandalf disappears halfway through The Hobbit: the fifty-years-old-but-effectively-still-a-child Bilbo has to become the adult and then the hero, by solving problems on his own. And the same reason why Beru and Owen are killed early and Kenobi disappears halfway through Star Wars: the raised-by-his-aunt-and-uncle child Luke has to become an adult and then the hero, by solving problems on his own. The protective parental figures have to be removed for the story to be about the growth of a child into an adult and then a hero.

"Finding Nemo" uses this trope particularly effectively as both Nemo and Marlin are essentially children who grow up during their adventure.

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@poepje: Though Bilbo is fifty years old at the start of The Hobbit, he is effectively a child. When removed from his comfortable life of inherited wealth he is at first a burden to the dwarves and has to be rescued by Gandalf. Then he gets the ring and starts to be an adult, and by the end of the story he is negotiating with the leaders of multiple armies and making a major influence on world politics. –  Eric Lippert Apr 14 at 17:52
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Yes, I think that this is very close to the mark. From Arthur, Bruce Wayne, Kal-El all the way through to Nemo, et. al., the loss of their parents has become one of the most common tropes in modern western story-telling to signal the beginning of the Hero's Quest. The real question to me is why only in Modern Western story-telling and not in Classical, Ancient, Eastern, etc. stories? –  RBarryYoung Apr 14 at 20:30
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@RBarryYoung: In say, classical myth, it is much less likely that your parents are able to solve all your problems for you. Indeed, often they are the problem. So the story doesn't require their removal to make the obstacles real to the protagonist. (This is also true of many western myths, of course. Note that in the Disney movies where parents live the parents are either part of the problem, irrelevant to solving it, or themselves the protagonists.) –  Tynam Apr 14 at 21:21
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Rephrasing slightly: if the parents were around, the story would end up being about what they were doing. Then we'd be asking where the grandparents are. :) –  Benjol Apr 15 at 12:10
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@Benjol: Indeed, we do ask where the grandparents are! See tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/WorldOfNoGrandparents –  Eric Lippert Apr 15 at 13:16

It's already been pointed out that not all Disney films include the death of a parent, but there are indeed a few that does and the reason for that, I believe, is because of the targeted audience. Children.

For most children, parents are thought of as gods. Not in the sense that they are always respected and obeyed (unfortunately), but in the sense that they are presumed to live forever (at least to see their children grow up and start a family) and they also seem to be able to do pretty much anything. There are of course exceptions, not all children adore their parents, but as with everything that is commercial you shoot for the widest possible audience. To most of the kids that do, however, the greatest task ever is to live up to be as great, or greater than, your parent(s) and the biggest fear is to lose one or both of them. Of course, if you'd ask them they would probably answer "jump to the moon" and "that the boogie-man in the closet eats them." But, because of the importance of parents in the lives of their children, these situations make for great movie themes. To overcome the death of a parent and/or to try and become as great as your mom or dad.

Answer to be elaborated even further...

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This is a really great answer. I hadn't thought of it from this perspective. It's almost like a coming-of-age thing from the way you're talking about it. –  meer2kat Apr 15 at 14:21

Here is an article based on a Malcolm Gladwell argument that suggests that the loss of a parent in real life makes one more likely to have either great success or great failure. I think there could be a truth here that the Disney movies are consciously or unconsciously tapping into. The article and its comments may offer some good insights: Successful Children Who Lost A Parent — Why Are There So Many Of Them?

  • 67 percent of British prime ministers from the start of the 19th century to the start of World War II lost a parent before the age of 16.
  • Twelve presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — lost their fathers while they were young.
  • Prisoners are two to three times more likely to have lost a parent in childhood than the population as a whole.
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When writing for children, it is quite common (regardless of authorship or medium) to minimize the role of parents in the story. Many non-Disney or pre-Disney children's stories find a good way of reducing or removing the role of parents.

Here are some prominent examples from non-Disney stories:

  1. The Chronicles of Naria - despite having children from many different families as heroes, the parents are barely mentioned and are far removed from the action.
  2. Harry Potter - Harry is an orphan and all of the heroes are removed from their parents for the vast bulk of the story.
  3. Winnie the Pooh - Christopher Robin's parents are barely heard of in the original AA Milne stories (which I have read but have sadly lost).

The reason for this is rather simple. Children are used to their parents saving the day, providing protection and nurturing them. A narrative is about characters facing challenges that are on the edge of their capabilities. When a parent is present, able and willing to help, the child is implicitly safe and the story is far less compelling.

Even in stories where the parents do play a prominent part, they are portrayed as detached or disbelieving of the troubles of the child or are a form of antagonist themselves.

The same principle applies to teen fiction. Much teen fiction relies on settings where the parents are either removed or ignored.

So rather than being a "Disney thing", this is actually a "children's fiction thing".

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Or as some people said, it's a fiction thing in general. Great points you made! I started thinking and realized that's the case in most cartoons and such as well. They are either dead, not there, or just hands (or sometimes shadows). –  meer2kat Apr 16 at 14:07

oedipus complex... ties into the theory the child must grow to defeat the same sex parent and take the strength of the other... the main characters cannot grow into the powerful images they have with both parents involved. Also, if both parents are alive in the movies, they would be able to balance roles of authority vs companion... without that the child feels angered/betrayed and must seek answers their own way.

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