Monday, July 11, 2011

Disney and the Single Parent

Some say that Disney is an evil, overlord-like corporation that is bent on world domination, and these people may be right, but Disney still makes pretty entertaining movies. I watched a number of Disney movies over and over again as a kid and I now show these same Disney movies to my kids in the hopes that they want to watch them over and over again.

However, watching Disney movies as a kid is a different experience than watching it as an adult. As a grown-up, you pick up on certain things that you didn't notice or care about as a child. One of these things I noticed recently was the fact that Disney tends to feature single-parent families in a lot of their animated feature films.

Now, before I get into the list of single-parent Disney movies, I need to stress what movies are NOT included in this list.

This list does NOT include Disney movies where the main character is an orphan. Using an orphan as your protagonist is an old writing gimmick to make the main character seem vulnerable and forces them to conquer their problems on their own instead of relying on their parents. Such examples of orphans in Disney movies would include Mowgli (The Jungle Book), Oliver (Oliver & Company), Snow White (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), Arthur/Wart (The Sword and the Stone), Cinderella (Cinderella), Quasimodo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Lilo (Lilo and Stitch) and Tarzan (Twilight). . .(I'm kidding, he's from Tarzan).

This list also does NOT include those movies where the parent is killed during the actual duration of the film as the inciting incident of the plot or just to move the story along. This would include such movies as Finding Nemo, Bambi, The Fox and the Hound, Brother Bear and The Lion King.

Finally, this list does NOT include the live-action Disney movies with single-parent families, such as The Parent Trap or Darby O' Gill and the Little People and it doesn't include any of the straight-to-DVD Disney movies, because I wanted to keep this list shorter than the writings of Dostoevsky.

What this list DOES include is a list of Disney animated features where one of the parents is missing from the beginning of the story without any real explanation. Movies like:

Pinocchio (1940)
Parent Missing: Mother
Parent Remaining: Geppetto
Relevant to the Plot?: Yes.
Geppetto was a lonely, single man who wanted a family, so he created a little wooden boy. I understand why this movie had a single parent because Pinocchio didn't have a mother - all he needed was his father, a cat, a goldfish, a blue fairy and a cricket. Sidenote: Monstro still terrifies me.

Dumbo (1941)
Parent Missing: Father
Parent Remaining: Mrs. Jumbo
Relevant to the Plot?: No.
Dumbo losing his mother is relevant to the plot, but his lack of a father seems like the animators were getting lazy. I did my research and found out that male elephants don't necessarily stay around after the mating ritual to raise the calf, so maybe the Disney animators were just being accurate.

Cinderella (1950)
Parent Missing: Mother
Parent Remaining: The King
Relevant to the Plot?: No.
"Wait a minute," you faithful readers are saying to yourselves, "you said you weren't going to include Cinderella on this list!" True. But while Cinderella being an orphan drives her story along, the prince not having a mother doesn't really have a purpose. The King and The Duke (who, interestingly enough, were voiced by the same person) are all about getting Prince Charming married and dreaming of grandchildren, a role traditionally given to doting mothers.

Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Parent Missing: Mother
Parent Remaining: King Hubert
Relevant to the Plot?: No.
Yes, Sleeping Beauty had two parents, but technically she was raised by three fairies. But that's besides the point because we're not talking about Aurora, here, we're talking about Prince Phillip. Once again, a single-parent king, Hubert, is looking to get his son married. Adding a queen on the groom's side probably wouldn't have changed the story, but at least it might have given Queen Leah more screen time.

The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Parent Missing: Mother
Parent Remaining: Hiram
Relevant to the Plot?: Kind of.
Admittedly, this is one of Disney's more forgettable animated features, but I liked it as a kid and it still uses the single-parent family format, so it's relevant. Since Olivia Flaversham didn't have a mother around when her father was kidnapped, she had no choice but to seek out the famous Basil of Baker Street. However, if her mother was still around, she and Olivia would have probably gone to Baker Street together anyway.

The Little Mermaid (1989)
Parent Missing: Mother
Parent Remaining: King Triton
Relevant to the Plot?: No.
Now I've heard that in the third Little Mermaid movie, it is revealed that Ariel's mom was killed by pirates. However, almost all Disney sequels can and should be forgotten, so we'll just ignore that plot point. This movie would have had the same story with a mother involved, and, let's face it, King Triton would have appreciated the help, raising seven daughters.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Parent Missing: Mother
Parent Remaining: Maurice
Relevant to the Plot?: No.
Crazy Old Maurice did a fine job of raising Belle, the most attractive Disney princess in my opinion, but there is no explanation as to what happened to Belle's mother. In the original French fairy tale Belle had two sisters, but Disney decided to take even that familiar relationship away. It's Belle against the world, baby!

Aladdin (1992)
Parent Missing: Mother
Parent Remaining: The Sultan
Relevant to the Plot?: No.
Aladdin may have been an orphan, but Princess Jasmine had a father. Perhaps Disney didn't like the idea of animating an entire harem for the Sultan, but this is another instance where the mother is missing with no real explanation.

Pocahontas (1995)
Parent Missing: Mother
Parent Remaining: Chief Powhatan
Relevant to the Plot?: No.
Let's face it, this movie would have been just as bad if it had a mother in it. There is a passing reference to Pocahontas' mother passing away previous to the timeline of the movie, but that's it. Pocahontas only has a talking tree with the face of a grandmother for matronly guidance.

A Goofy Movie (1995)
Parent Missing: Mother
Parent Remaining: Goofy
Relevant to the Plot?: No.
Chalk this one up to the lazy animators once again. Max and Goofy could have easily had a father/son trip if the mother was still around. Roxanne also seemed to come from a single-parent family -- as did Pete. Wait. . .were there any mothers in this film?

Toy Story (1995) Toy Story 2 (1999) Toy Story 3 (2010)
Parent Missing: Father
Parent Remaining: Andy's Mom
Relevant to the Plot?: No.
This is one of the few times that the father is absent in a Disney film. Andy's Mom, whose name, it turns out, is Jennifer Davis, defies the odds and becomes one of the few single mothers in a Disney movie. In the entire Toy Story series we never see or hear from Andy's dad. It is never mentioned whether he is dead, divorced or is just a deadbeat dad that doesn't like to be on camera.

For the record, out of the 50 theatrical animated feature films that the Walt Disney Animation Studios has produced to date, 35 prominently feature a single-parent family, an orphaned child, missing parents or parental death. No one really knows why Disney uses this format so often. Some say it is because fewer characters make it easier on the animators, others say that it is because of the tragic death of Walt Disney's own mother that he intentionally chose to remove the mothers from his movies. Regardless, it's a peculiar trend in Disney movies that I didn't pick up on until I was an adult.

I also didn't pick up on the fact that Zorro, Batman and Iron Man were essentially the same story as a kid, but that's a different subject for a different post.


Small Town Shelly Brown said...

Fox and the Hound? Doesn't Copper technically fall under the category of orphan? And Todd, he's not actually the son of Chief, is he?
WAIT! Do we see Coppers mother/father shot at the beginning? Is this what you're referring to.
I don't know why I ever doubt the Former786? I always end up with egg on my face. (I wish he didn't throw eggs)

The Former 786 said...

In the very beginning of The Fox and the Hound, Small Town Shelly Brown, we see Tod's mother is shot and killed by a hunter. While this does set the plot in motion, yes, he does count as an orphan. He could fit into either of those excluded categories, really.

No eggs necessary. :)

Katya said...

"I also didn't pick up on the fact that Zorro, Batman and Iron Man were essentially the same story as a kid, but that's a different subject for a different post."

What about The Scarlet Pimpernel?

The Former 786 said...

As a kid, I didn't really know about The Scarlet Pimpernel, or The Green Hornet. However, both would apply. Good point, Katya.

Emily said...

The Great Mouse Detective as a more forgettable film? Good heavens I disagree, my dear 786! (formerly known as.)

Anytime I watch anything on Investigative Discovery or other get-the-bad-guy show, and they discuss ballistics? I always ALWAYS think of the first scene in that movie. you know- where he is comparing the bullets under the microscope. That movie is so great.

The Former 786 said...

And I enjoy it, too, Emily. But you can't deny the fact that it's not exactly a classic in the Disney canon.

Crystal said...

wtf?! totally weird

The Former 786 said...

I know, Crystal! I picked up on the single-parent thing, but I had no idea it was mostly missing mothers until I sat down and did this post. Weird.

Katya said...

One possible explanation for the single parent trope is that if it's a parent of the opposite gender, you can introduce tension into the relationship by having the child feel that the parent doesn't really understand them (or having the parent feel that they can't really connect with their child).

The Little Mermaid is probably the most obvious example of that situation, although you might be able to make an argument for Beauty and the Beast, as well.

Of course, this argument falls flat if the half-orphan isn't a protagonist, because they don't get a story arc. So it doesn't really seem to matter to the story that Andy doesn't have a dad, because he isn't the protagonist of Toy Story. (But then, I'd be hard pressed to call Toy Story a Disney film, anyway.)

The Former 786 said...

I can see how that would further alienate the protagonist. A very astute observation, Katya!

Felicia said...

A coupla things: Thanks for ruining Brother Bear for me. One of the parents dies? Now I never want to see it! Oh wait...
Also, I don't think that's really Sean Connery singing. Voice double?
And, I seriously want to know, what does Condor Man have to do with Dostoevsky?

The Former 786 said...

1. I didn't say WHICH parent. Otherwise you would have known that his uncle dies while saving their dog's life. Oh wait. . .

2. From IMDb: "A version of the song "My Pretty Irish Girl" sung by Sean Connery and Janet Munro was released as a single about the same time as the debut of the movie in 1959. Ironically, Sean Connery said the singing was the one aspect of the role he wasn't too fond of." So, yeah, it looks like it was him.

3. I'm glad you asked that, Felicia. There's a famous and repeated line from Condorman that goes, "I'll bring the dip, if you bring the Dostoevsky." As a kid, I wanted to know what that line meant, so I researched Dostoevsky. The two are forever linked in my mind. The line actually occurs just previous to the clip I linked to. Great question!