Why Are All the Cartoon Mothers Dead?

The dead-mother plot is a classic of children’s fiction, but animated movies have supplied a new twist: the fun father has taken her place. 
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Zohar Lazar

Bambi’s mother, shot. Nemo’s mother, eaten by a barracuda. Lilo’s mother, killed in a car crash. Koda’s mother in Brother Bear, speared. Po’s mother in Kung Fu Panda 2, done in by a power-crazed peacock. Ariel’s mother in the third Little Mermaid, crushed by a pirate ship. Human baby’s mother in Ice Age, chased by a saber-toothed tiger over a waterfall.

I used to take the Peter Pan bus between Washington, D.C., and New York City. The ride was terrifying but the price was right, and you could count on watching a movie on the screen mounted behind the driver’s seat. Mrs. Doubtfire, The Man Without a Face, that kind of thing. After a few trips, I noticed a curious pattern. All the movies on board seemed somehow to feature children lost or adrift, kids who had metaphorically fallen out of their prams. Gee, I thought, Peter Pan Bus Lines sure is keen to reinforce its brand identity. The mothers in the movies were either gone or useless. And the father figures? To die for!

A decade after my Peter Pan years, I began watching a lot of animated children’s movies, both new and old, with my son. The same pattern held, but with a deadly twist. Either the mothers died onscreen, or they were mysteriously disposed of before the movie began: Chicken Little, Aladdin, The Fox and the Hound, Pocahontas, Beauty and the Beast, The Emperor’s New Groove, The Great Mouse Detective, Ratatouille, Barnyard, Despicable Me, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and, this year, Mr. Peabody and Sherman. So many animated movies. Not a mother in sight.

The cartoonist Alison Bechdel once issued a challenge to the film industry with her now-famous test: show me a movie with at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man. Here’s another challenge: show me an animated kids’ movie that has a named mother in it who lives until the credits roll. Guess what? Not many pass the test. And when I see a movie that does (Brave, Coraline, A Bug’s Life, Antz, The Incredibles, The Lion King, Fantastic Mr. Fox), I have to admit that I am shocked … and, well, just a tad wary.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The dead-mother plot has a long and storied history, going back past Bambi and Snow White, past the mystical motherless world of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, past Dickens’s orphans, past Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, past the Brothers Grimm’s stepmothers, and past Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. As Marina Warner notes in her book From the Beast to the Blonde, one of the first Cinderella stories, that of Yeh-hsien, comes from ninth-century China. The dead-mother plot is a fixture of fiction, so deeply woven into our storytelling fabric that it seems impossible to unravel or explain.

But some have tried. In Death and the Mother From Dickens to Freud: Victorian Fiction and the Anxiety of Origins (1998), Carolyn Dever, a professor of English, noted that character development begins “in the space of the missing mother.” The unfolding of plot and personality, she suggests, depends on the dead mother. In The Uses of Enchantment (1976), Bruno Bettelheim, the child psychologist, saw the dead mother as a psychological boon for kids:

The typical fairy-tale splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and an evil stepmother … is not only a means of preserving an internal all-good mother when the real mother is not all-good, but it also permits anger at this bad “stepmother” without endangering the goodwill of the true mother.

You may notice that these thoughts about dead mothers share a notable feature: they don’t bother at all with the dead mother herself, only with the person, force, or thing that sweeps in and benefits from her death. Bettelheim focuses on the child’s internal sense of himself, Dever on subjectivity itself. Have we missed something here? Indeed. I present door No. 3, the newest beneficiary of the dead mother: the good father.

Here’s a challenge: show me an animated kids’ movie that has a named mother in it who lives until the credits roll. Not many pass the test.

Take Finding Nemo (Disney/Pixar, 2003), the mother of all modern motherless movies. Before the title sequence, Nemo’s mother, Coral, is eaten by a barracuda, so Nemo’s father, Marlin, has to raise their kid alone. He starts out as an overprotective, humorless wreck, but in the course of the movie he faces down everything—whales, sharks, currents, surfer turtles, an amnesiac lady-fish, hungry seagulls—to save Nemo from the clutches of the evil stepmother-in-waiting Darla, a human monster-girl with hideous braces (vagina dentata, anyone?). Thus Marlin not only replaces the dead mother but becomes the dependable yet adventurous parent Nemo always wanted, one who can both hold him close and let him go. He is protector and playmate, comforter and buddy, mother and father.

In the parlance of Helen Gurley Brown, he has it all! He’s not only the perfect parent but a lovely catch, too. (Usually when a widowed father is shown onscreen mooning over his dead wife’s portrait or some other relic, it’s to establish not how wonderful she was but rather how wonderful he is.) To quote Emily Yoffe in The New York Times, writing about the perfection of the widowed father in Sleepless in Seattle, “He is charming, wry, sensitive, successful, handsome, a great father, and, most of all, he absolutely adores his wife. Oh, the perfect part? She’s dead.” Dad’s magic depends on Mom’s death. Boohoo, and then yay!

In a striking number of animated kids’ movies of the past couple of decades (coincidental with the resurgence of Disney and the rise of Pixar and DreamWorks), the dead mother is replaced not by an evil stepmother but by a good father. He may start out hypercritical (Chicken Little) or reluctant (Ice Age). He may be a tyrant (The Little Mermaid) or a ne’er-do-well (Despicable Me). He may be of the wrong species (Kung Fu Panda). He may even be the killer of the child’s mother (Brother Bear). No matter how bad he starts out, though, he always ends up good.

He doesn’t just do the job, he’s fabulous at it. In Brother Bear (Disney, 2003) when the orphaned Koda tries to engage the older Kenai as a father figure (not knowing Kenai killed his mom), Kenai (who also doesn’t know) refuses: “There is no ‘we,’ okay? I’m not taking you to any salmon run … Keep all that cuddly-bear stuff to a minimum.” In the end, though, Kenai turns out to be quite the father figure. And they both live happily ever after in a world without mothers.

So desperate are these kids’ movies to get rid of the mother that occasionally they wind up in some pretty weird waters. Near the beginning of Ice Age, (Blue Sky/20th Century Fox, 2002), the human mother jumps into a waterfall to save herself and her infant, drags herself to shore, and holds on long enough to hand her child to a woolly mammoth. To quote an online review by C. L. Hanson, “She has the strength to push her baby up onto a rock and look sadly into the eyes of the mammoth, imploring him to steady her baby with his trunk,” but—hold on—she doesn’t have the strength to save herself? And by the way, if Manny the woolly mammoth is such a stand-up guy, why doesn’t he “put his trunk around both of them and save them both” rather than watching her float downriver with a weary sigh? Because, as the reviewer noted, “the only purpose of her life was to set up their buddy adventure.” Her work is done. Time to dispose of the body.

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