Why Are Moms Almost Always Dead in Disney Movies?
I’m not sure I would have even picked up on it had a friend not pointed it out, but have you ever noticed that moms are largely absent from Disney films? At first, I figured this was a coincidence. Perhaps even a necessary plot device used to shove characters into dangerous situations where they are forced to change or grow. Having a mom around might hinder that kind of adventure, after all. But it got me wondering, was there a particular reason for this?
Not all Disney movies are missing a mother, though. Quite a number of them feature a maternal figure of some kind. For example, there are motherly figures that make brief appearances in Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, Hercules, Mulan, Tangled, Zootopia, and Moana, to name a few. However, many other Disney movies lack a motherly figure that some have wondered if perhaps Disney himself was behind the narrative choices to disclude moms.
Cartoon logic might be on explanation.
In 2014, Glamour Magazine published a curious interview with Don Hahn. If you’ve never heard of Hahn, that’s likely because the masterminds behinds the movies seldom make headlines — they’re too busy producing great stories. Hahn is the Oscar-winning producer behind Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. He also served as Maleficent’s executive producer, the 2014 box office hit, which starred Angelina Jolie in the titular role. During a conversation about Maleficent, Glamour journalist Jessica Radloff points out the weird lack of motherly figures in Disney movies, and Hahn offers up two fascinating explanations.
“One reason is practical because the movies are 80 or 90 minutes long, and Disney films are about growing up,” Hahn told Glamour. “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.”
Hahn quickly points that Bambi’s mother gets killed (a scene that traumatized a whole generation of kids, myself included). Belle has only one father, he says, but he gets lost, which forces Belle into a specific position that sparks her story.
But there is another, a more interesting and much sadder tale about why moms might be missing from many early Disney films.
It started with Disney’s Mom.
To understand why a suspiciously large number of Disney movies don’t have a mother or expressly show that the mother died (think Bambi and Finding Nemo, for example), we have to go back to Disney’s mom.
Walt Disney’s mother was Flora Call. She was a school teacher, and on New Year’s Day in 1888, she married Elias Disney. Together the couple would have five children between the years 1888 and 1903. Her most famous child, Walt Disney, was her fourth baby and was born on December 6, 1901, at home in Chicago.
Flora and her husband Elias watched as their son, Walt, grew from a scrappy young artist with big ideas to a movie-making powerhouse. Walt had moved to Hollywood in the 1920s, where he set up Disney Brothers Studios with his older brother Roy. By the 1950’s he opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Disney was an iconic American entrepreneurial superhero.
But despite Disney’s insane rocket to success, he never forgot his family or his roots. So, by the 1940s, when he could afford it, he bought his parents a house right next to his own.
“He 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,” Hahn explained.
“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.”
While this story is not a secret, it is also not discussed very much and was certainly not ever mentioned by Walt Disney, who felt personally responsible for his mother’s death.
“It’s every kid’s dream to buy their parents a house, and just through a strange freak of nature — through no fault of his own — the studio workers didn’t know what they were doing,” Hahn explained.
Flora Call Disney died in 1938, and then some of the most iconic Disney films, curiously each would be missing a motherly figure, were subsequently released. Fantasia (1940), Pinocchio (1941), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942). It is easy to speculate that a blend between narrative shorthand, as Hahn explained, and the story of Flora Call Disney’s death might explain the movies.
After his mothers’ death, Disney moved away from his five-acre home called Los Feliz that he built in 1932. He would later move his family to Holmby Hills, which shares two other famous homes; the Spelling estate and the Playboy mansion.