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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 '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 '14 at 16:12
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Napoleon Wilson Jan 24 '17 at 20:24
  • Same reason as why teens die in horror movies. In order to be a parent, you first have to have..... you know..... – PoloHoleSet Nov 16 '17 at 21:57
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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.

  • 1
    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 '14 at 20:24
  • Not sure you can have Tangled in the list given that one of the main characters is an orphan... – Andrew Oct 23 '15 at 9:29
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Napoleon Wilson Jan 25 '17 at 2:08
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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.

  • 1
    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 '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 '14 at 21:21
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    @meer2kat: In Greek mythology one parent of the hero is often conveniently absent because they are a god or goddess. Heracles, Perseus, Theseus, Achilles, and so on. Oedipus is an obvious example of a hero whose (both human) parents are the problem, but he also grows up without them. – Eric Lippert Apr 15 '14 at 16:48
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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 '14 at 14:21
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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".

  • 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 '14 at 14:07
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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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It's the combination of basic plot structure and Disney's family friendly message.

Plot structure and good storytelling

  • A problem arises, no one can fix the problem, the hero currently cannot fix the problem, but can work towards solving it. In the end, the problem is fixed.
  • The viewer is generally supposed to identify with the protagonist, as both are often exploring an unfamiliar setting.
  • Most protagonists carry emotional scars, their personality is driven by their response to a tragedy in their life.
  • Stories should try to limit the amount of characters that are present, to avoid creating confusion for the viewer.

Disney's message

  • Your parents always help you.
  • You (the child) are the hero.

Available parents would solve all the problems.

Combining the two, you should see where the issue lies: if the child has its parents nearby, then the parents will be able to solve the plot for them.

In the interest of plot development, that can't happen. The parents must either be unavailable, or unable to assist in the plot in any way.

Note that when we see living parents, they are almost always hilariously unskilled at what they do.

  • Yasmine's father is wholly incapable of ruling. Although he means well, he is childish, easily swayed, and doesn't even correctly identify Yasmine's desires.
  • Aladdin's father, though he cares for Aladdin, lets his greed and materialism get in the way of his familial ties, thus rendering him unavailable (and a situational obstacle to Aladdin, e.g. by smuggling the hand of Midas with him).
  • Mufasa is a strong and just ruler. He expertly rules the Savannah (compare him to the sultan...). He would be able to overthrow Scar without anyone fearing that Mufasa might fail. That would make for a boring story, so Mufasa dies and becomes unavailable (with the exception of cloud-Mufasa's inspirational words, which may have been a hallucination by Simba).
  • Sarabi (Simba's mom) has never been in the picture, even if alive and present. We could call the Lion King sexist for clearly putting men above women. While Nala has a stronger personality, her role is pretty much reduced to asking Simba for help, and that's about it. Arguably, Shenzi the hyena is the only saving grace here, as she is the leader of her pack of three.
  • Finding Nemo is a bit special here. Although many see Nemo as the protagonist, I would argue that Marlin is the protagonist here. He's the one making the journey, facing the dangers and living in insecurity. Nemo, comparatively speaking, went on a field trip to Sydney. When you look at the moral message of the story, it focuses on how overbearing parents mean well, but should learn to relax more.
  • Maurice, Belle's father, is clearly incapable of leading his family. Belle consistently takes care of him: she hands him tools that he can't find, she does the outside chores because he father is deemed mad by the townsfolk, she sacrifices her freedom for Maurice's. And when Belle is not around, her father can't even convince the townspeople of anything, they immediately twist his statements into proof that Maurice has gone mad. Without Belle, he likely would'nt have escaped the mad house.
  • Cinderella's story is driven by being abused by her family. To avoid nasty inferences about how your family can be horrible to you, most children's stories will always make the step family horrible, not the biological family (e.g. the queen in Snow White is her stepmother, as is the stepmother in Hansel & Gretel who wants to get rid of the children while their actual father loves them). So if Cinderella needs to face familial abuse, she needs to be in a step family, which inherently means that she has no real family anymore.
  • Lilo and Stitch is a "buddy movie". Part of what drives Lilo is the lack of affection she gets from not having parents. He sister takes care of her, but is too busy with her own life to give Lilo the continual love and affection she needs. Stitch is very specifically a substitute for Lilo's lack of parental affection. By getting to know Stitch, she matures from a child (connected to its parents) to an emotional adult (connected to their friends).
  • The parents in Frozen were the only thing that kept Elsa's powers in check. As the plot is mainly driven by Elsa's emotional outrage at how people respond to her powers, she can't have her parents around to give her emotional support and talk her down (it precludes the plot).

Footnote: Notice how a lot of one-parent families end up with a parent of the opposite gender. There is a common trope where a mother innately understands her daughters, and a father innately understands his sons. By using different genders, the likelihood of misunderstanding increases (e.g. how the sultan doesn't understand Yasmin's desires) and therefore makes the parent more unavailable to assist the protagonist child with their issues.


Disney cannot do the opposite.

The previous chapter is clear: parents solve all the problems and would preclude a good plot in a family friendly movie.

It's interesting to note that Disney is wholly incapable of moving away from this, without infringing on their family friendly message. Let's look at the alternative, where the parents are present and capable, but cannot solve the plot.

Why can't they solve the plot? If they're capable of doing so, and they are present in the child's life, then the only remaining option is that they either don't care about the problem, or they ARE the problem.

If they don't care about the problem, that means that the child protagonist must go against their parents in order to resolve the plot. While this may arguably work equally well when you consider children the target audience of the movie, I doubt that many parents will want to take their children to go see a movie that teaches the child to disobey its parents.

Note that there are a few movies where children do go against their parents, but they are usually focused on teens instead of younger children, and the parents are explicitly shown to be caring but misguided (e.g. How To Train Your Dragon).

If they are the obstacle, the implication becomes even worse, basically teaching the child that your parent is the problem. Notice how there are no Disney movies where a child has to fight their parents, for this exact reason. It creates an interesting plot, but the moral lesson diverges from what Disney wants to tell.

One of the examples you listed fits this to a tee: Jungle Book. Mowgli is an orphan, because he ends up lost in the wilds. If Mowgli were to have parents, what would that say about them? That they lose their child, and that the child actually likes living without his parents.
Notice how Bagheera needs to explain to Mowgli that he belongs in the human world. In the end, Mowgli still doesn't agree but he does respect Bagheera's advice. Imagine the implications if Mowgli didn't want to go back to the human town where his parents live.

Interestingly, there is one exception to this rule: Inside Out. Both parents are alive and well, and it is highly implied that they are (part of) the cause of the problem. Riley does in fact rebel against her parents, but the plot also makes sure to explain that Riley is a slave to her emotions, thus making her the victim, not the perpetrator. Also, the parents eventually admit that they are part of the problem and take responsibility, which avoids an undesirable plot resolution.


Condensing background characters

This is also an important one. Notice that all parents we have seen are background characters, because the focus is on the protagonist child who is dealing with the plot.

Background characters should exist (to make the story layered), but the number of background characters should be limited. A great example of this is The Lion King 1.5 : Hakuna Matata.

In the movie, we actually meet Timon's family: his mom and uncle Max. However, Timon was also slated to have a father. Here he is, on the right. Based on his character design, you can tell a lot about his intended personality. His hair resembles that of uncle Max, but he has a friendlier face. However, he looks less emotional than Timon's mom. It seems likely that Timon's dad would basically have been "meerkat Mufasa": pragmatic, not driven by emotion like Timon's mom, not negative about Timon like uncle Max is. Looking at Timon's mom's scenes, it makes sense that the "goodbye" scene would have been Timon's dad, because it was out of character for his generally overbearing mother to suddenly agree with Timon leaving the nest. It makes more sense for his fathr to agree, and take the responsibility of consoling the mother on himself.

However, there was a problem here. Timon's family only gets limited screentime, and a handful of lines. If Timon's father is part of the movie, that means that this limited screen time would be shared by three background characters.

There simply wasn't enough screen time to create exposition for three background characters. In the end, they merged Timon's mom and dad into Timon's mom (she took all of the Dad's lines). Notice how they opted for the parent of the opposite gender, as per my earlier footnote.

This is especially true for a movie directed at children. The story is kept simple (not many plot twists or ambiguous scenes that get revealed to "only be a dream"), with a limited amount of distinct characters.

There are examples of this in your list:

  • The parents in Toy Story are wholly irrelevant. Even Andy himself is a background character. If they weren't moving house, neither parent would've been relevant enough to be part of the plot. But the moving situation required a parent to drive the car.
  • Ariel doesn't need a mother. Again, there is a point to be made that Poseidon is of the opposite gender (thus explaining why Ariel's desires are not addressed by her father); which gets further complicated with Poseidon being a god (therefore omnipotent, thus making the mother unnecessary in terms of providing for Ariel). The main focus of the movie happens outside of Poseidon's view, which renders Ariel's parents as background characters, likely to be condensed into a single character.
  • Bambi mostly focuses on how a naive deer makes its way through the world alone. It makes sense to cut down on the amount of family that such a character has. Similarly, Dumbo's adventures are driven by no longer having his mom around.

To summarize

Parents can be dead/missing/irrelevant for many different reasons:

  • Their presence precludes the plot.
  • Their presence, combined with the plot, ends up impling bad things about family values. Disney puts family values first, and therefore has to sacrifice the parents' presence in favor of the moral message.
  • If they are sufficiently irrelevant to the plot, parents can be condensed into a single parent for the sake of lowering the amount of characters that we need to know about.
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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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To better support other answers, Huffington Post has the following interview with Don Hahn...

In some cases, especially those in which a mother is missing, such as Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, or The Little Mermiad, is considered homage to Walt Disney himself, as his parents expirienced a tragic accident, that resulted in his elderly mother's death. Another reason also expressed, has to do with the structure of coming of age stories...

If you’ve ever wondered why so many Disney characters were lacking in the mom department or pondered why mommy dearest was introduced only to bite the big one moments later, there’s a very logical explanation — and it’s not just about reducing you to a sniveling sack of tears.

“I’ll give you two stories that are the reasons. I never talk about this, but I will,” Don Hahn, executive producer of “Maleficent,” recently told Glamour. “One reason is practical because the movies are 80 or 90 minutes long, and Disney films are about growing up. They’re about that day in your life when you have to accept responsibility. Simba ran away from home but had to come back. In shorthand, it’s much quicker to have characters grow up when you bump off their parents. Bambi’s mother gets killed, so he has to grow up. Belle only has a father, but he gets lost, so she has to step into that position. It’s a story shorthand.”....

Hahn, who also worked on Disney classics such as “Beauty and the Beast” > and “The Lion King,” went on to give a more depressing and Freudian reason for the lack of mothers in the Disney cannon. In the early 1940s, Walt Disney bought a home for his parents. “He had the studio guys come over and fix the furnace, but when his mom and dad moved in, the furnace leaked and his mother died,” Hahn said. “The housekeeper came in the next morning and pulled his mother and father out on the front lawn. His father was sick and went to the hospital, but his mother died.” https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/15/disney-characters-moms_n_5825428.html

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