I find it funny that one of the most popular and extensive movie brands for children seems to exclude or demean parents in its works time after time after time. Have you ever noticed that most Disney movies (or at least the more popular) are essentially either rid of parent figures altogether, or there seems to be only one parent present – and that one ripe for defying? Even in ‘Mulan’, one of the only films in which both parents are remotely present, she is quick to defy them and get them out of the picture.
Because let’s face it – where would the adventure come in if a movie was weighed down by the presence of parental authority, guidance and discretion? It’s much easier to just get the parents out of the way and plunge into a great romp where everyone learns lessons the hard way. It’s much more liberating that way, too.
Wait – so what exactly are these movies actually teaching our children?
Look at The Little Mermaid – she defies her father, and ends up the one to teach him a lesson in the end. Or Nemo – he defies his father too; admittedly, he gets in considerable trouble for it, but the fact remains. In The Parent Trap, the whole idea is to trick the parents twice over; once merely to fool them, and then again as a complete conspiracy to get them back together – as if the kids know best and can outsmart their parents any day. In Aladdin, Jasmine tires of her parents’ authority and her life being dictated, and runs away. (And Aladdin himself, just to address the main character of this story – well, he doesn’t exactly lead a squeaky clean lifestyle.) Huckleberry Finn is a runaway – not that we can blame him, but he is one. Pocahontas defies her father. The new Alice in Wonderland sees Alice as a runaway. Peter Pan preaches never growing up, and sees the other children run away from home. The list goes on.
Of course, we all know Disney means nothing malicious – and there are good lessons too. I just find it funny, and a bit ironic, the way they often portray parent figures.
The glowing exceptions… Beauty and the Beast. She adores her father (but still has no mother). 101 Dalmations. The parents are present! They are, however, dogs. Perhaps this makes things different. Perhaps dog parents are more acceptable to feature. (The Aristocats also features parent-figures in this way. Do we sense a pattern among the animals?) Swiss Family Robinson (the classic) is also a notable family-oriented story. Mary Poppins kind of goes both ways – the kids are neglected and essentially parent-less while thrust into the care of a nanny instead, but it turns out better in the end, so we can let that one slide.
And there are others that shine, certainly. But even if we dismiss the themes of defiance, the dead-or-absent-parent trend is a little bit sad. We all cried in Bambi. I don’t know about you, but Dumbo made me cry too. Mowgli is orphaned as a baby. Tarzan is orphaned as a baby. Cinderella’s mother is dead, and her father is a loser. Pinocchio only sort of has a father (but at least it’s a good one). Robin Hood…well…there isn’t really a place for parents in his case. After all, he’s grown up and a glorified criminal. In The Lion King, we see Simba’s father die right before our eyes – killed, no less. Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty has parents, but she is stripped away from them for the relevant part of her life – certainly for growing up. Snow White…where were her parents ever? In The Sword and the Stone, Wart is an orphan sadly living with his awful, neglectful uncle.
It is interesting to see the patterns that storytellers have decided make good stories. But it poses the question: can’t parents play an important role in stories geared toward children? When and where are we going to see this?