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Kids' Films And Stories Share A Dark Theme: Dead Mothers

Jul 13, 2014
Originally published on July 18, 2014 12:03 pm

The death of Bambi's mother has moved — and horrified — generations of children. The fleeing, the gunshot, the desperate search and then the gut-wrenching words: "Your mother can't be with you anymore."

For many, that scene was traumatizing; for some it was the very first experience of loss. But Bambi is far from the only animated film featuring a mother's tragic death.

Just ask Sarah Boxer.

Boxer is a graphic novelist, a critic and a lover of cartoons. She's also the mother of a 10-year-old boy. While she was watching kids' movies with her son, Boxer realized how frequently the characters' mothers were dead.

"Show me an animated kids' movie that has a named mother in it who lives until the credits roll," Boxer writes in the latest issue of The Atlantic. "Not many pass the test."

Boxer tells NPR's Kelly McEvers that the list of animated films with dead moms is long: Beauty and the Beast, Fox and the Hound, Finding Nemo, Lilo and Stitch, Brother Bear, Despicable Me, Kung Fu Panda 2, Little Mermaid 3, etc.

"All of those have mothers who either die in the movie or are just not there," Boxer says.

"One of the things I love about animated movies is that you can basically create any fantasy that you want," she says. "And what's striking to me is that over and over you get this world without mothers, and as a mother myself I sort of take offense."

The dead mother theme has been around since long before Disney and Pixar. It dates back to at least 9th-century China with the tale of Ye Xian, the original Cinderella story. Then there's the darkness and death of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, then Charles Dickens' orphans — everywhere you look, dead mothers abound.

But it's not always the mom who dies, Boxer points out.

"For instance, take the Lion King — in that one, actually, the mother survives and the father dies," Boxer says. "But I think the difference in something like the Lion King where the father dies is it becomes a major plot point, it becomes almost the center of the movie."

Meanwhile, in films in which the mother dies, says Boxer, the death is just a starting point — a catalyst for action — and the ensuing plot usually has nothing to do with the mother.

After steeping herself in kids movies and combing through cartoons for dead mothers, Boxer noticed another theme emerging. The void left by a dead mother used to be filled by an evil stepmother, but in recent years another figure has stepped in to take her place: the "perfect father."

The movie dad might start out as less than perfect (see Chicken Little, Brother Bear or Ice Age), but over the course of the movie he transforms into the ideal father. "And not only a good parent in the maternal sense of being protective," Boxer says, "but also kind of a buddy."

In reality, most families have two parents, and there are far more single mothers heading up families than single dads. "So in a way it's just pure fantasy. But I do think that there's an underlying message," Boxer says, "that we don't really need mothers; in fact, life might be more fun without them ... that it could be a life of pure adventure."

Boxer says that message is worth taking seriously.

"I think these movies are very formative and sort of create the background plots that we relate our lives to," she says. "And I don't think I saw them that way before I had a kid, but I see it now, especially raising a son."

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It's summer - kids are out of school going to the movies. I don't know about you, but I remember exactly where I was when I learned that Bambi's mom had been killed. That movie theater in Anna, Illinois, sitting near the front, crying my face off.


PAULA WINSLOWE: (As Bambi's Mother) Bambi, quick the thicket.

MCEVERS: But think about it, "Bambi" was just the beginning. A lot of animated films have dead moms. Just ask Sarah Boxer.

SARAH BOXER: "Chicken Little," "The Fox And The Hound," "Beauty And The Beast," "Nemo," "Despicable Me" - the kids start out as orphans. Lilo's mother and father both killed in a car crash. Koda's mother in "Brother Bear." Po's mother in "Kung Fu Panda Two." Arial's mother crushed by a pirate ship in "Little Mermaid" - I think three - and "Ice Age."

MCEVERS: Boxer is a graphic novelist, a critic and a lover of cartoons. She's also a mom. She first noticed all these dead mothers which he started watching kids movies with her 10-year-old son.

BOXER: One of the things I love about animated movies is that you can basically create any fantasy that you want. And what's striking to me is that over and over you get this world without mothers. And, as a mother myself, I sort of take offense.

MCEVERS: Boxer says the dead mother theme has actually been around since long before "Bambi" - from ancient Chinese folktales to "The Brothers Grimm" to Dickens - dead moms seem to be everywhere in fiction. So why?

BOXER: Bruno Bettelheim - he's a child psychologist and he wrote a whole book about "The Grimm" stories and fairy tales in general and how you have to kill off the mother to have a really good plot - to have an adventure story, basically. If the mother's there, there is no story. It's just a, you know, well-adjusted child growing up.

MCEVERS: Sometimes though there is a surprising variation.

BOXER: For instance, take "The Lion King" - in that one actually the mother survives and the father dies.


JEREMY IRONS: (As Scar) Long live the King.

BOXER: But I think the difference in something like "The Lion King" where the father dies is it becomes a major plot point. So I think it's very different where the mother dies and sort of is swept out of the way in order that the plot can begin - which has basically nothing to do with the mother.

MCEVERS: Boxer has noticed another trending kids movies, too - used to be evil stepmothers took the place of dead moms. Now somebody else is stepping in.

BOXER: This is the perfect father and not only a good parent in the maternal sense of being protective - but also kind of a buddy, you know, a playmate somebody who is...


BOXER: A bro. Exactly as in "Bro Bear."


PHIL COLLINS: (Singing) Welcome to our family time. Welcome to our brotherly time.

BOXER: The truth is most families have two parents and there are like four times as many single mother led families as single father led families. But I do think that there is an underlying message that is also coming across which is that, you know, we don't really need mothers. In fact, life might be kind of more fun without them. They're not, you know, calling us down to supper and telling us to clean our rooms or whatever - that it could be a life of pure adventure.

MCEVERS: As a mother that message worries Boxer, especially because kids are watching these movies during their early formative years. She says, families might want to look at movies like "The Incredibles" where mom, dad and the kids were all part of the adventure. Sarah Boxer's article is called "Why Are All The Cartoon Mothers Dead?" It's in this month's Atlantic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.