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Family Room

Something can happen once and be a fluke. When it happens time and time again, it qualifies as a trend. So what's up with Disney's treatment of parents? Over the years, the studio has had them locked away, murdered and, in the case of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, abducted by a shaft of blue light, never to be seen again. Single-parent scenerios often imply death or divorce. Still other characters have been inexplicably orphaned. Why?

I met with Atlantis producer Don Hahn, and raised that very question. After all, who better to ask than the 25-year Disney veteran whose impressive résumé includes Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

Let's talk about the role of parents in Disney films. We loved the stable, caring, two-parent family at the center of The Emperor's New Groove. But that's not the norm for Disney. A lot of times we see a father, but no mother. In Atlantis, Milo's parents are dead and Kida's mom is traumatically snatched away very early in the story.
I think it represents a dramatic turning point in the lives of these kids who are the main characters. Emperor's New Groove is kind of a departure from that. It was a comedy, and the insular family represented Pacha's world which was warm and fuzzy in contrast to the world that Kuzco—here the one without parents—never had.

Why does this kind of thing seem to happen so often in Disney films?
At their core, our movies are about growing up. Aladdin. Belle. Milo. All these characters are faced with that crossroads in their lives where they're no longer kids, and they have to grow up at various ages. Milo is probably in his thirties. And that's the case with real life. We don't always grow up in adolescence. Sometimes we grow up in our thirties or forties or fifties and beyond. By not having a complete family, it represents a catalyst or a dramatic turning point that forces the character to grow up.

So, in an indirect way, these stories serve as a reminder that a loving, two-parent home is a healthy, safe place. And in the absence of that, the drama kicks into high gear.
When Cinderella's mother dies and her father remarries a wicked stepmother, that's a dramatic insert into her otherwise normal life. Everything is going fine until one day that stepmother shows up and it's not fine anymore. In Atlantis, everything is going fine for Milo until his parents are killed somehow, though we never talk about it in the film, and he's faced with living up to his grandfather's legacy. So it's that crossroads where we all have to decide if we're going to mature or remain a kid forever. Will we be a participant in life or a spectator? And the thing that gets that going in many of our stories is the absence of a parent or the death of a parent. In Lion King, Simba had two parents and we ran over one with some wildebeests. That was the turning point that said, "Life ain't normal anymore. Go. The drama of the story begins today." That's the kind of drama you need to catapult these stories and make them play.

Did you choose not to go in that direction with Hercules—who had two intact sets of parents, one natural and one adopted—because he was thrust out of one world and into another, which essentially served the same purpose?
Yeah, it did. If you want to go back to the old Joseph Campbell analysis of storytelling, it's about the character who starts out in his hometown and gets pushed, sometimes reluctantly, into this journey to maturity. For a god like Hercules to suddenly get pushed into the mortal world and have to grow up there was enough for that story to be told. You know, that's interesting. I don't know why we want to hear that basic story again and again, but we certainly tell it again and again. (Laughs) It's a life-affirming reminder that we'll grow up and everything will work out okay.

I understand what Don means. And I've been told that another rationale for one-parent families is simple economics: Why pay two actors to provide the voice of parental authority when one will do? That's also one less character animators need to take back to the drawing board.

Nevertheless, I think it's reasonable to ask what kind of "character" is being developed in young people confronted by a disproportionate number of fractured families. It's not just the plight of Milo or Belle or Simba; it's the cumulative effect that concerns me. Sure, eliminating parents is a proven way to put heroes at a crossroads, but for all of Disney's creativity, it would be great if the studio could look for other paths to that "dramatic turning point."

Published May 2001

Plugged In Plus

It seems we're not the only ones who noticed this trend toward fractured cartoon families. In a letter to the editor published in TV Guide, Margaret O'Nell specifically objected to Disney's routine exclusion of mothers from its animated classics. She wrote, "What is Disney Studios' aversion to mothers? Aladdin originally had a mother, according to your article but '[Studio head Jeffrey] Katzenberg wasn't wild about the mother, so Mom disappeared.' Jasmine doesn't have a mother either. Neither does Belle or Ariel. Snow White and Cinderella have wicked stepmothers. Pinocchio doesn't have a mother, and Peter Pan doesn't even know what a mother is! Sleeping Beauty's mother is only briefly referred to as 'King Stefan and his queen.' And everybody knows what happened to Bambi's mother!" Indeed we do. And hunters the world over have been answering for it ever since.