How many Disney films have a primary character with a dead, missing or single parent?
56 out of 104
total animated feature films
distributed by Disney since 1937
35 out of 54
0 out of 6
5 out of 15
Many Disney movies share a curious detail. Where are the protagonists' biological mothers? Little wooden puppet Pinocchio is carved and cared for by his "father" Geppetto. Peter Pan is forever a motherless lost-boy. The mothers of Belle (Beauty and the Beast), Jasmine (Aladdin) and Pocahontas from the eponymous film are all either absent or deceased.
Delve further into the Walt Disney Studios' extensive archive of feature-length animated classics and similar trends emerge. If maternal figures aren't absent from the start of the story, many are killed, captured, or replaced by a "wicked stepmother" along the way. Even Disney's most high-profile acquisition ever, the Star Wars franchise, follows the pattern: a dead mom and absentee dad, with the Skywalker children being raised by relatives.
Is there a darker undertone to these tales—to the bastion of unadulterated childhood innocence promulgated by the Disney brand? We spoke with animation historians, fairy tale experts, activists and mythographers to explore the trope.
Being a puppet, Pinocchio has no real mother or father. The Blue Fairy acts as his mother and Geppetto, as his father.
The Lost Boys have no parents. They appoint Wendy as their mother.
The Sword in
Arthur, or "Wart", is an orphan.
Penny has no parents but gets adopted by the end.
Oliver & Company
Penny Foxworth's parents are away on business for the entire film.
The Emperor's New Groove
Emperor Kuzco's family is absent and believed to be deceased.
Lilo & Stitch
Lilo and Nani's parents died in a car accident prior to the beginning of the movie.
Pirates of the Caribbean
Elizabeth's mother is noted by her father's ghost but never seen. Jack and Will’s respective mothers are dead.
Vanellope von Schweetz is a glitch and has no parents. Ralph becomes a father figure.
Star-Lord’s father is missing and his mother dies in the opening sequence.
Meet the Robinsons
Lewis, the protagonist, is an orphan, as well as the future father of a family he abandons but later returns to.
Disney's "motherless" plotline—recurrently used over the past 80 years—has been refuted by many experts as coincidental. But, in a 2014 interview, even Lion King producer Don Hahn attributed its use to Walt Disney's own childhood trauma. According to Hahn, Disney deliberately wrote out, killed off, or replaced maternal figures as a consequence of the guilt he carried about his own mother's death. Hot off the heels of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ success in 1937, Walt and his brother Roy had presented their parents Flora and Elias with their own home in North Hollywood, near the Disney studios in Burbank, California. It was in this house, one year later, that Flora lost her life.
A historically Grimm tradition
Before Flora Disney's death in 1938, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had been completed and released, and Bambi and Pinocchio were already in production.
"Part of Disney's reliance on single parents is simply owing to the presence of single parents in the source material, as with Pinocchio," animation historian Michael Barrier tells Hopes&Fears. "Was Geppetto a widower or a lifelong bachelor? I don't think either Collodi or Disney gives us a clue." These stories, inherited from traditional fairy tales and recycled over thousands of years, reflected the customs, norms and values of their orators.
"Historically speaking, people did not live very long from the medieval period through the early 20th century", Jack Zipes, author of Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry tells Hopes&Fears. "Women died frequently from childbirth. Therefore, there were many single parents, although men tended to marry quickly after their wives died as in Snow White and Cinderella."
"[Walt Disney] 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. 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. He never would talk about it, nobody ever does. He never spoke about that time because he personally felt responsible."
Don Hahn, Glamour
Mothers killed and/or captured in film
Mrs. Jumbo is locked up for the majority of the movie but is not killed.
Bambi's mother killed by a gunshot. Bambi’s father reveals himself after her death.
Mowgli's mother Raksha is killed by Shere Khan.
The Fox and the Hound
Todd's mother killed by a gunshot
The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning
Ariel and her sister's mother, Queen Athena, is killed by pirates. Her father is subsequently a widower.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Quasimodo's mother is killed by Frollo. His father's whereabouts is unexplained.
Both of Tarzan's human parents are killed by Sabor.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Princess Kida's mother is killed while trying to save Atlantis from its first fate.
Nemo's mother Coral (along with all of Nemo's siblings) is killed by a barracuda.
Koda's mother is killed by Kenai.
Elsa and Anna's parents are killed in a shipwreck. Kristoff is revealed to be an orphan.
Katie Orenstein, author of Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale, agrees. "Stepmothers were quite common, and warfare over the inheritance was a serious matter," she tells us. "In the 19th century in Europe, a peasant woman might bear around seven children, and bury as many as she raised, if she made it through all of those labors alive herself."
It's also plausible that fairy tales deliberately featured protagonists whose parents were dead, absent or inattentive in order to teach their listeners a moral lesson that helps guide them into adulthood. Most fairy tales adapted by Disney feature an eminently reusable and formulaic plot in which a youthful protagonist is forced to venture into the world alone. Without parental guidance and protection, the character learns the lessons necessary to overcome obstacles, and eventually succeeds in the face of adversity. This coming-of-age setup is a parable: It's possible to survive and flourish in the "real world" without parental intervention!
In the 1923 fairytale of Bambi in the Woods written by Felix Salten and adapted by Disney in 1942, for example, Bambi is forced, following the death of his mother, to acquire the survival skills necessary to thrive in the forest—steps which the character would not have to take if he was still under maternal protection.
Adoptive mothers and evil stepmothers
One Hundred and One Dalmatians
Perdita is stepmother to the other 84 puppies.
Kala is a gorilla that raised Tarzan from an early age.
Messua is Mowgli's adoptive mother.
Mena is Bambi's adoptive mother.
Guardian Gothel kidnapped Rapunzel from her biological parents when Rapunzel was an infant.
and the Seven Dwarfs
Queen Grimhilde is Snow White's stepmother.
Lady Tremaine is Cinderella's stepmother
Queen Narissa is the evil stepmother of Prince Edward.
Problematic formulas, empowered princesses
Because losing a parent is inherently dramatic and terrifying, an absent parent structure "plays on the primal fears that children have about their primal relationships," writer, activist and filmmaker Jennifer Baumgardner tells Hopes&Fears. "My issue, as a feminist, to how this primal fear is portrayed in Disney films such as Bambi is that losing a mother is shown as sad, but also as the reason that the protagonist can grow up, as if the mother was a barrier to strength and growth."
Art historian, activist, and writer Amy Richards agrees. "I think that presenting women as expendable after they have fulfilled their procreative and sexual purposes is not unlike how some women are treated in real life," she says. In her eyes, this is far from trivial and has serious real world correlations, citing the Boko Haram's kidnapping, rape, impregnation and subsequent return of young girls. "That's obviously an extreme comparison—but there are certainly more common examples of women being 'used' sexually and then discarded and, likewise, of women being exclusively presented as either sexual prey or maternal fraus."
When the voice of the storyteller shifts to literary in the 19th century, it assumes a paternal role. By the end of the century, the literary fairy tales, as Zipes notes in Happily Ever After, were primarily authored by men (Hans Christian Anderson, The Brothers Grimm, Wilhelm Hauff, William Makepeace Thackeray, Ludwig Bechstein, Carl Ewald, George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll) as well as collected by them. Walt Disney had a chance to write in purposeful maternal figures when he adapted fairy tales for the screen, but he chose not to.
In conversation with Zipes, we asked if the single-parent structure adopted in numerous Disney films draw any parallels with their creator’s own life.
"He was a 'happily' married patriarchal sexist," Zipes tells us. "His first three films were personally supervised by him up through the early 1950s. Then there was a pause through his death, and Beauty and the Beast was the Disney corporation's new endeavor to corner the fairy-tale market. It was also a time of growing divorce rates, and single mothers and fathers up through today. So, if there is a social and political parallel, it has to do with the way Americans now marry or do not marry."
"They glorified a particularly American perspective on individualism and male prowess. In traditional fairy tales that Disney adapted for the screen, there were very few major plot changes because Disney and his co-workers generally subscribed to the ideological content of the action. In this respect, Disney depicted clear-cut gender roles that associated women with domesticity and men with action and power."
Jack Zipes, Happily Ever After
Single mothers and fathers
The Rescuers Down Under
Cody's mother is widowed, his father is never seen. Marahute's chicks lose their father to McLeach.
Mrs. Jumbo is a single-parent. It is unclear where Mr. Jumbo is.
The Lion King
Sarabi, the mother of Simba, is a widow. Sarafina, the mother of Nala, appears to be a single mother because the father is unseen
The Lion King II: Simba's Pride
Zira, the mother of Nuka, Vitani and Kovu, is perceived to be a single mother. The father of her children is unknown.
Beauty and the Beast
Mrs. Potts is a single mother. She is a tea pot.
The Princess and the Frog
Eudora is Tiana's mother. Her father, James, died in World War I.
Toy Story trilogy
Only Andy's mother is present; there's no father (possibly, they are going through a divorce).
Sarah Hawkins, is a single mother to Jim. Jim's father, Leland, left the family early for unknown reasons.
Django is Remy's father. His mother is never mentioned. Both of Linguini's parents are deceased.
Aladdin finds his father in the sequel. He mentions he lost his mother early in life. Jasmine has a single father. Her mother's whereabouts are unknown.
The Great Mouse Detective
Hiram Flaversham is the father of Olivia Flaversham. Her mother's whereabouts remain unexplained.
Hank Pym is a widower. His wife died, leaving him the sole parent of Hope Van Dyne.
Beauty and the Beast
Maurice, father to Belle, is single. Her mother's whereabouts are never explained.
Chief Powhatan is Pocahontas' widower father. His wife died many years ago.
Kevin Flynn is the single father to Sam. Kevin's wife is deceased and Sam grew up believing his father to be dead.
A "complex" answer
"The best-loved, classic fairy tales teem with figures of female evil", writes novelist and mythographer Marina Warner in The Absent Mother: Or, Women Against Women in the "old Wives' Tale". "The good mother often dies at the beginning of the story, and the tales telling of her miraculous return to life, like Shakespeare's romances Pericles and The Winter's Tale, have not gained the currency or popularity of Cinderella or Snow White in which she is supplanted by a monster."
According to psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, there's a particular reason for this. In The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bettelheim asserts that the (deceased) mother and the (wicked) stepmother 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.
"The typical fairy-tale splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and an evil stepmother serves the child well. It is not only a means of preserving an internal all-good mother when the real mother is not all-good, but it also permits anger at this bad ‘stepmother’ without endangering the goodwill of the true mother, who is viewed as a different person... The fairy tale suggests how the child may manage the contradictory feelings which would otherwise overwhelm him at this stage of his barely beginning ability to integrate contradictory emotions. The fantasy of the wicked stepmother not only preserves the good mother intact, it also presents having to feel guilty about one’s angry thoughts and wishes about her - a guilt which would seriously interfere with the good relation to Mother."
Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales
Barrier was also keen to remind us that not all Disney movies feature a single parent: "Don't forget all the intact families in other Disney animated features—Bambi has a father as well as a mother" (though she dies during the film and the deer father figure often treats him coldly), "the Dalmatians are a couple with children" (84 of the 99 puppies in 101 Dalmations are adopted by Perdita after she finds they have no one to protect them from slaughter), "as are Lady and the Tramp, and so on. I'm not sure that there really are enough single parents in the Disney cartoons to permit a generalization about them." Most of his examples, as many non-fictional families, are hardly "intact."
Barrier also suggests that Disney utilized a parentless formula for practical storytelling reasons: "It was probably just a matter of convenience. In Dumbo, for instance, there was presumably a Mr. Jumbo Sr., but the story proceeds much more smoothly without him around." Hahn, the same producer who mythologized Disney's traumatic personal motivations, also considered those plots to be "practical" devices. As he told Glamour, "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."
Shorthand or not, add the not-so-intact families to the absent and deceased mothers, wicked stepmothers and there lies a gendered pattern. This pattern has carried throughout history, manipulative storytelling and resonated from Disney's own life. It's too present to to ignore.