Why Do So Many Father-Daughter Movies = Feisty Kid + Bumbling Dad?

Starting with Beauty and the Beast animated films have favored the trope—for good reason.

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This past weekend, I took my four year-old daughter Heloise to see Epic, the latest animated feature from Blue Sky Studios, creators of Ice Age and Rio. At this early-afternoon showing, the theater was nearly full. There were few teens or young adults; rather, the auditorium was packed with children aged three to ten—and their fathers. I counted a couple of heterosexual couples with kids, and two unaccompanied moms with little ones. The overwhelming majority of adults were like me—dads with their kids, without their partners.

As a gender-studies professor, I reflexively notice sex disparities in public places. Usually the anecdotal data I collect gets filed away in whatever part of the brain archives trivia I'm unlikely to use again. Not so on Sunday, when I realized that the theme of the film we were watching seemed perfectly designed to match the demographics of the audience. Epic wasn't just aimed at parents and children—it was, like so many other recent animated films, squarely focused on celebrating and redeeming the father-daughter relationship.

When it comes to the make-up of movie audiences, my anecdotal observation jibes with the data. Across the United States, there really are more dads than moms on their own with their kids at the movies. A 2011 study by polling firm Ipsos found that dads are 50 percent more likely than moms to take young kids to the movies. (This holds true for films of all ratings, from G to R.) "Dads are more interested in finding content they can enjoy with their kids," said Ipsos senior vice president Donna Sabino. Moms may remain the key decision-makers about most household purchases, but fathers increasingly rule in one area: entertainment.

It's not news that advertisers design sales campaigns to appeal to their target demographic. What seems evident is that when it comes to animated features, film makers are making the same calculation as the marketers. A 1998 study found that girls are twice as likely as boys to cite animated films as their favorites. If preteen girls are twice as eager as boys to see animated features, and dads are 50 percent more likely to be the parent sitting next to them in the movie theater, then it makes sense to center that relationship in the plot of what they're watching together.

Epic centers around 17 year-old Mary Katherine ("M.K.") who, following the death of her mother, moves in with her eccentric, bumbling father, Professor Bomba. Her dad is obsessed with finding tiny soldiers ("Leaf Men") who he claims live in an advanced forest society. No one else believes him, and as we learn, this obsession has already cost him his marriage to M.K.'s mother. Just when it's on the verge of ruining his relationship with his daughter as well, M.K. is suddenly swept into the world of the Leaf Men, and realizes her father has been right all along.

Single fathers have long been a central presence in fantasy and fairy tales, as any reader of the Grimm Brothers knows. Until the coming of modern medicine, childbirth was among the leading causes of death for women—a fact that resulted in a lot of widowers. But while the fathers in these fairy tales were often stern and over-protective as in The Little Mermaid, or in thrall to the proverbial wicked stepmother as in Cinderella, it's only very recently that they've become benign fools—fools who are mocked by the world but saved by a daughter's love.

This paradigm shift began in 1991 with Disney's hugely successful Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. In From the Beast to the Blonde, her masterful history of fairy tales and their adaptations, Marina Warner argues that the depiction of Belle as a feminist heroine necessitated a loss in power for her father, "crazy old Maurice." Disney "replaced the father with the daughter as the enterprising authority figure in the family," Warner writes, a radical reversal from the 18th century French text on which the film was based. The runaway triumph of Beauty meant that Disney and its many rival studios have stuck to the same formula of heroic daughter and lovably inept (but always well-intentioned) dad ever since.

It would be wrong to claim that the "clumsy, misunderstood father saved by heroic daughter" theme dominates all animated features. Groundbreaking on multiple levels, Disney's Brave represents a rare centering of the mother-daughter relationship—and a father, who for all his playfulness, is depicted as competent in a way that has become increasingly rare. The few animated films that focus on father-son relationships, such as The Lion King, maintain the dad's status as ruling patriarch. (Simba can't rescue Mufasa from death; rather, like an adorable furry Hamlet, he spends the film trying to avenge and emulate him.)

Despite occasional exceptions, the father-daughter connection remains the central theme of many of Hollywood's most successful animated films. This doesn't always require a dead mother as in Epic, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, or Aladdin (which also features a sweetly ineffectual dad.) Though this spring's Dreamworks hit The Croods features a prehistoric family of dad, mom, grandma, teen girl, and baby brother, the focus is squarely on the relationship between "Grug" and his fierce daughter "Eep." While a loyal provider, Grug is fearful and over-protective; like Professor Bomba and Maurice, he's an inventor whose gadgets inevitably and humiliatingly fail. Grug ends up rescuing everyone with his brute strength and paternal devotion—but only after Eep has already saved the family by insisting that they listen to her beau, a more evolved Cro-Magnon named Guy. The movie's emotional high point comes when Eep and her father "invent the first hug," an unsubtle visual cue for little girls to nestle against their daddies in the theater.

The filmmakers know their target demographic well. If that all-important first hug were between Eep and Guy, the sexual undertones might make dads squirm. If it were between Grug and his wife Ugga, the focus on marriage might alienate single dads—or dads who want a respite from focusing on their obligations to their kids' mothers. A dad-son hug (rarely seen in animated films) is presumably too charged with awkwardness. Only a father-daughter embrace will do.

Near the end of Epic, Professor Bomba laments that he was never able to convince his late wife that the world of the Leaf Men was real. M.K. throws her arms around her father, reassuring him that she now knows the truth her mother didn't. Dad may not be a hero to mom, but he's one in the eyes of his daughter. In a fantasy world where adult women are so often absent, a young girl's devotion proves the key to her father's redemption. In real life, moms are still more likely to spend time with the kids except at the movies or on other entertainment-centered outings. But when those dads are alone in the darkened cinema with their kids, they are increasingly likely to be reminded that no matter their shortcomings as husbands or partners, they are still adored by their heroic daughters. Everyone (or at least those most likely to be in the audience at an animated feature) wins: Little girls get a dose of commercialized feminism, and dad gets the longed-for affirmation that in the end, for all his faults, he's perfect just the way he is.