Two essential ingredients of any good movie are a tightly written, compelling story and believable, empathetic characters. Many of the Disney animated classics are perfect examples. But one glaring omission in many of these is the lack of one or both parents, usually the mother. How could this be?
Creative arts don’t normally beget statistical analysis, and a detailed analysis would make a good book since each story is unique (for example, some parents are present at the beginning but don‘t live very long), but let’s try. The Walt Disney Company’s Archives Director Dave Smith lists 42 classic animated features from 1937 through 2002. By my analysis, eight of these were anthologies with no central story. Of the remaining, I count 15 features with missing biological mothers for a major character: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Cinderella (1950), The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Jungle Book (1967), The Rescuers (1977), The Black Cauldron (1985), The Great Mouse Detective (1986), The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Tarzan (1999), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001, Princess Kida‘s mother), and Lilo and Stitch (2002).
For the sake of completeness, there is Treasure Planet (2002) in which the mother is present but the father is mostly absent.
By contrast, only eight features have both biological parents present for at least a substantial part of the story: Bambi (1942), Peter Pan (1953, not for Peter and the Lost Boys, but for the Darling children), Lady and the Tramp (1955, human parents played a major role), Sleeping Beauty (1959), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), The Lion King (1994), Hercules (1997), and Mulan (1998).
Before you try the math, I am not including movies in which having both parents is not necessary, like Dumbo (1941), or where parents simply don’t fit into the story, like Alice in Wonderland (1951) and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977).
First, does this prove that Disney is prejudice against mothers? I think not, because of the 15 features without biological mothers, ten also don’t include biological fathers: Snow White, Cinderella, Sword…, Jungle Book, Rescuers, Black Cauldron, Aladdin, Hunchback, Tarzan and Lilo and Stitch.
Second, why the dearth of parentage? The simple answer is story. Lack of one or both parents, especially a mother, simplifies the tale, reducing it to the essential elements. The simpler the story, the easier it is to follow. Also, this omission makes the child a more compelling character; such important story elements as character and conflict become easier to add.
This can best be illustrated with some “case studies“:
Disney’s first, and quintessentially classic, animated feature was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White is a traditional fairytale; some basic research reveals a long history with many variations. Walt Disney could easily have modified the story in any way that he saw fit: a biological mother, both biological parents, take your pick. But he seemed content to stick with the version attributed to the Brothers Grimm. In this case the “Disney touch” consisted of elements like giving the Dwarfs distinctive personalities and providing memorable songs like “Someday My Prince Will Come.” (Walt’s inspiration was apparently a silent-film version starring Marguerite Clark that he saw as a newsboy in Kansas City in February 1917.) In this version, there is a mother all right, but it is a wicked stepmother who is jealous of Snow White’s beauty and plots to have her murdered. This provides an easy-to-follow storyline of good versus evil, and the lack of the protection of a biological parent gives Snow White the required vulnerability to make her a sympathetic character. In any event, the end result was one of the most successful motion pictures of all time.
Disney’s second animated feature was Pinocchio. This story didn’t have the provenance of a Snow White; it was an original serialized story written for a children’s magazine by Carlo Lorenzini under the penname Collodi. Of course Pinocchio didn’t have a mother; he was brought to life by the Blue Fairy as a reward for the elderly toymaker Geppetto, who longed to have a real boy. If Pinocchio had had a mother, it would’ve meant Geppetto would’ve been married and would not have needed magical intervention to have a son. If Geppetto had been married and still needed magical intervention… well, that would not have been Disney’s story.
In the more contemporary Aladdin, the title character is an orphan. Once again, this tale has a long and rich history with many variations; its Wikipedia entry refers to it as a Middle-Eastern folktale (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aladdin). Aladdin did have a mother in the original Disney version. A song was even written for Aladdin to sing to her. Entitled “Proud of Your Boy,” it was a real tearjerker, with Aladdin apologizing for all his wrongs and promising to become an eventual success. But think about it: an orphan who is forced to steal to survive can be a hero; a boy with a parent who constantly gets into trouble is simply a juvenile delinquent. Which is the more sympathetic character? Plus designing a female character as strong as Princess Jasmine made another woman unnecessary.
We can add another dimension by discussing the decline of Disney animation (at least the traditional, hand-drawn genre) after The Lion King. Summarizing the role of mothers in the following five animated features — Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan — this was a particularly rough time in which to be an animated Disney mom. Pocahontas’s mother was deceased at the story’s beginning, Quasimodo’s mother was killed in the opening scene, neither of Hercules’ mothers (the Goddess Hera and the mortal Alcmene) plays a significant role, the same is true for Mulan’s mother Fa Li, and of course both of Tarzan’s biological parents are killed early by the leopard Sabor. Would a larger role for mothers have made these movies more memorable?
Probably not. The more pressing problem during this period appears to be that Disney animation succumbed to a formula — virtually every animated feature was a musical about a rebellious/misunderstood young person. (Personality-wise, what was the difference between Pocahontas and Mulan? ) Every Disney animated feature began to look the same.
Which actually brings us back to where we started: two essential ingredients of any good movie are a tightly written, compelling story and believable, empathetic characters.
Grant, John, Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters, New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
Schroeder, Russell, Disney’s Lost Chords, Volume 2, Robbinsville, NC: Walt Disney Music Company, 2008. (see Aladdin, p. 98)
Smith Dave, Disney A to Z: The Official Encyclopedia, New York: Disney Editions, 2006.