Missing Parents in Disney Films

My wife and I went to see Toy Story 3 tonight.  It was another great film and it was wild to see the end of a saga that began for us when we were still in high school (1995).  It also made for a great date night, too!  On the drive home, we started talking about the movie and the trilogy.  As we talked we made a startling observation:  there is no dad in any of the Toy Story movies.  And not only that, but we also kept thinking about it:  the first Toy Story movie has Andy’s young sister as an infant without any mention/sight of a father (even though we meet Sid’s couch-potato dad next door).  So, I start to tweet about my amazing discovery.  My friend, Matt Dearman, replies that it’s a trend in most Disney films.  Since my wife is pretty much the Disney expert – we started thinking about it.  The results were stunning.

Snow White was Disney’s first major motion picture in 1937.  They have been making “family” oriented films for 73 years.  In that time, here are the only movies we could find (that we had seen) that portray a married mother and father who love and care for their families throughout the entire film (who aren’t minor characters):
–The Incredibles (perhaps the best of all the animated films)
–The Emperor’s New Groove (Pacha’s familiy, though it appears briefly, still looks pretty healthy)
–Swiss Family Robinson (perhaps the best of all of the non-animated films)
–Remember the Titans (Coach Boone’s family)

There are other movies that have 2 parents, but their role is either minor or inconsequential to the film:  Lady & the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, Hercules, Mulan.

Besides those few, most every other Disney movie you and I have ever seen over the past 73 years does not depict a 2-parent home at all, for very long, or in a healthy way.  One parent is either completely missing (usually for an unexplained reason), dies shortly into the beginning of the film, or the main characters are orphans and never had parents to begin with.  Consider some examples:
–Dumbo:  no father
–Bambi:  mom dies early
–Cinderella:  mom dies early; dad remarries & dies – all in the introduction
–Alice in Wonderland:  no dad mentioned
–The Jungle Book:  the kid is raised by animals
–The Little Mermaid:  no mom (in fact, most Disney princesses don’t have moms)
–Aladdin:  he’s a homeless kid and Jasmine’s mom isn’t in the movie
–The Lion King:  Dad dies early on
–Mary Poppins:  The dad runs his home like a bank; mom’s a political nut and the kids are more attached to their nanny than their own parents.
–Finding Nemo:  Mom dies early
–Pollyanna:  orphan girl who lives with her rich, strict aunt
–Ratatouille:  kid is illegitimate; both parents are dead – even the rat only appears to have a dad.
–I could go on and on and on!

See for yourself.  Here is a complete list of major Disney productions.  Are there other productions that we’ve missed that display healthy, traditional, nuclear families that play anything of a significant role in the story?  (It’s a fun nostalgic look back at movies you haven’t thought about since you were 8).

Now, I know that Disney did not write all of these stories.  Nevertheless, these are the stories they selected to produce and it is alarming how few of them model complete, traditional, healthy families – which is, of course, their prerogative.  I just find the deficiency rather astounding.  And we could broaden this observation beyond Disney for sure (most TV shows these days have dysfunctional, broken, or absent families).  So, I’m not really blaming Disney for anything or really hoping that they will change their ways.  I’m just wondering why the “leading diversified international family entertainment and media enterprise” hasn’t produced many films that have a married mother and father that care for and love their children.

So, that was our conversation on the drive home tonight.  What do you think?  Just a sign of the times or some kind of massive conspiracy?  Any new insights or perspectives on this that I’m not considering?  Can you think of any movie/TV show that does model a stable, healthy family well?

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3 thoughts on “Missing Parents in Disney Films”

  1. I’ve most definitely talked with people on this subject. It’s pretty interesting. I have wondered if the absence of parents has been more for the story telling. A lot of times we are much more engaged in the story if we really want to see the protagonists overcome the obstacles in their path or their starting situation because we feel they might deserve it.

    That is to say, if they were already in a great situation, we would not care to follow them till the end of their story. For example, we want Cinderella to become a princess and to find her “happily ever after” because at home she is being treated like no one should. We want to see her happy because her living conditions are so poor.

    I see it very similar to ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. If you’ve never seen the reality show, they provide home renovations for families who are going through some kind of hardship – natural disaster, family member with a life threatening ill-ness, etc… and most of them because of these obstacles are financially unwell. It’s hard to watch an episode of that show and not fight back a few tears… Point is, we want to see them get this new house because we feel they deserve it based on their current situation.

    If they were renovating houses to the rich and famous, there wouldn’t be that emotional tie to the story. Why would we care if they could pay for the renovations out of their own pocket.

    So I don’t know why the absence of parents has been used so much, but I think it’s just to make us feel more for the characters.

    Now something I have noticed in Disney movies is this: most villains or seemingly dumb characters have have accents while protagonists of the same regions do not. For example, Aladdin and Jasmine vs. Jafar. Or even in Pocahontas, Governor Ratcliffe (villain) and John Smith are from England, yet John mysteriously lack and accent. Anyway, that’s another blog post. haha

  2. I've talked with people about this too. And I think they're one of the reasons stepmoms have such a bad rap as well. I absolutely love Disney, but this is something that isn't good.

  3. Let’s slow down a second.
    To make a statement about how Disney treats families, we have to look at it in the context of how other children’s stories treat families and then determine if Disney’s portrayals are any different…

    Huck Finn- drunk father, no mother
    Johnny Tremain- dead mother
    Danny the Champion of the World- Single father, dead mother
    James and the Giant Peach- james lives with two terrible aunts after an escaped rhino murdered his parents
    The Witch of Blackbird Pond- Kit lives with her Grandfather, then is sent away to be raised by her aunt and uncle
    The Wizard of Oz- Dorthy is an orphan raised by her Aunt and Uncle (though we could think of them as “spiritual” parents)

    Even our beloved Pevensies (Narnia…) are sent away from their parents when their father is sent to war.

    To be fair, we do have to present the other side…
    “Married mothers and fathers who care for their children”:
    The Fantastic Mr. Fox- 2 parents, 3 children
    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory- 2 parents, 4 live-in grandparents (we should note, though, that the parents are minor characters)
    The Swiss Family Robinson
    Pride and Prejudice

    This is about a millionth of the literature out there, so I’m sure you can think of examples for both sides.

    It isn’t so much that Disney is undermining the structure of the family as it is that in interesting stories, protagonists experience conflict, and having a balanced family that provides emotional, social, and financial resources doesn’t contribute to that.

    What we really need is for involved parents to teach their children to discern Truth so that they can apply filters to these stories and take away the parts are beneficial to their value systems.

    “Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” -GK Chesterton

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