Kids' Movies Are Full of Death

Main characters are two-and-a-half times more likely to die in a children's animated film than in a film for adults—and three times more likely to be murdered.


Death lurked outside the couple’s doorstep. A monster, many times their size, fixed its eyes upon their home. Paralyzed with fear, they stared at the beast’s silver scales and terrifying teeth, which glistened too close to the couple’s slumbering children. The mother dashed towards her brood. The monster pounced. And though the father tried to fend off the attacker with every inch of his tiny frame, he was knocked out by the beast's colossal tail. A few hours later, he awoke to a grisly discovery: his wife and all but one child had been consumed.

That scene occurs a mere four minutes and three seconds into the 2003 Disney film Finding Nemo. A similar ghastly fate befalls the parents of the titular character in Tarzan, when a leopard mauls the couple to death just four minutes and eight seconds into the movie. These films exemplify the prevalence of death and violence in children’s animated movies that extends from 1937’s Snow White (the evil stepmother gets struck by lightning and crushed by a boulder) to 2013's Frozen (the parents drown after their boat sinks), according to a new tongue-in-cheek study published today in the Christmas edition of The BMJ.

In "Cartoons Kill: casualties in animated recreational theater in an objective observational new study of kids’ introduction to loss of life," the researchers compare how often on-screen deaths occur in kids movies with their frequency in movies for adults. (Not those kinds of adult movies.)

To conduct the study, the researchers compared the top grossing animated children’s movies from 1937 to 2013 with the two top grossing films for adults from those years. They looked at 45 top-grossing animated children's films and 90 dramatic films for adults, finding that two-thirds of children’s movies depicted the death of an important character while only half of films for adults did. They also found that the main cartoon characters in children’s films were two-and-a-half times more likely to die, and three times as likely to be murdered, when compared with their counterparts in films for adults.

“We conclude that children’s animated films, rather than being innocuous alternatives to the gore and carnage typical of American films, are in fact hotbeds of murder and mayhem,” wrote psychiatric epidemiologists Ian Colman and James Kirkbride in their paper.

For example, they compared 1994’s The Lion King with its adult counterparts from that year Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. The team only looked at animated movies with general audience (G) or parental guidance suggested (PG) ratings and films that had humans or animals as main characters. The research revealed that that in children’s movies, parents, nemeses and children were most likely to be killed off first, while in adult-geared films the movie’s protagonist was most likely to die first on-screen.

Parents of main characters–like the ones in Frozen, The Lion King, Finding Nemo, Tarzan, and Bambi–were five times more likely to die in a children’s movie than in a film for adults. Their sample included three gunshot deaths (Bambi, Peter Pan, and Pocahontas) two stabbings, (Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid), and five animal attacks (A Bug’s Life, The Croods, How to Train Your Dragon, Finding Nemo, Tarzan).

Lead author Ian Colman from the University of Ottawa in Canada said the idea for the study came to him when a friend told him not to watch the first five minutes of Finding Nemo with his son. The authors noted that one person who reviewed the paper compared the death of Nemo's mother by barracuda to the shower scene from Psycho. Thankfully, the movies didn't have the same ending.