Sunday, March 5, 2017

Disney's Death Obsession

Another wild weekend of mine rolls from hard-lived reality into the stuff of whispered legend. Future biographers will feast on tales of how I occasionally checked if the socks on the clothes-horse were dry yet whilst watching 'Cinderella' on Netflix. 

It's another one of those Disney's live-action money-churners which I'm quietly intrigued by but never so much so to spend 15 quid on a cinema ticket (I won't forgive you 'Malificent'). Again it features a simperingly perfect Pollyanna lead but is worth a watch for Cate Blanchett alone. 

She is a deliciously camp flash of evil but never strays into hammy pantomime. This arch villainess could become cartoony but instead we get an understandable human - a bitter twisted grasping human, but a human. With great clothes. 

What also struck me was the aggressive amount of parental death chucked at the audience. Elle's beloved mother dies but luckily she has a loving and stable father, who then dies. Meanwhile Prince Kit's mother is presumably already dead, and so he only has his beloved father, who promptly dies. The lesson seems to be 'if you love your parents they will die'. A comfort to any child.

Of course we have learned to brace ourselves for this kind of thing in a Disney film. 

For instance: Simba's father is trampled to death in 'The Lion King', Bambi's mother is shot dead, Tarzan's parents are eaten by a leopard and his adoptive father is shot dead, Shan's father killed in battle in 'Mulan', Quasimodo's mother beaten to death in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame', both Cinderella and Snow White's mothers are dead, Tiana's dad is killed at war in 'The Princess and the Frog', Tod's mum is hunted down and killed in 'The Fox and the Hound',  Lilo's parents were killed in a car-crash in 'Lilo and Stitch', Arthur has no parents in 'The Sword and the Stone', Ariel's mum is dead in 'The Little Mermaid', Belle's mum is not mentioned in 'Beauty and the Beast' and she's held captive away from her father, Cody's dad is dead in 'The Rescuers Down Under', the parents drown in 'Frozen'  Mogli's mum was killed by Shere Khan in 'The Jungle Book', Dumbo's mum was locked up for supposed mental health problems, and more recently in 'Big Hero 6' both the hero's parents are dead. 

So what's that about?

I'm very far from the first person to notice Disney's mummy-death obsession and there's a great article on 'Hopes & Fears' here outlining the main theories. The most frequently raised is that Walt Disney was acting out his guilt over the death of his own mother. He bought his parents a swanky new home in Hollywood, but a year later his mum died by breathing fumes from a faulty furnace. Walt reportedly never forgave himself. 

Hmm. The issue there is that most Disney's stories are adaptations of stories written hundred of years before that faulty furnace. It may have been a subconscious personal fixation for Walt but to be fair, fairytales and fables have been bumping off parents since writing began. 

It's a simple story need. Stories are about change and parents represent stability. This is not just a Disney issue, Luke Skywalker, Oliver Twist, Annie, Dorothy Gale and Harry Potter are all orphans who follow the same route to independence. 

For our main character to grow they have to be thrust into a state of change. The archetypal story follows a hero as they go from stable contentment to a fragile state of uncertainty, to overcoming these fears and obstacles and becoming triumphant and self-sufficient. This is the outline of many stories because it's the outline we tell ourselves about life itself. It's one story we all relate to. 

If parents are in the story then the hero has no reason to tackle the world alone. We need death of stability as the catalyst for growth. 

As Disney producer Don Hahn says "One reason is practical because the movies are 80 or 90 minutes long, and Disney films are about growing up. They're about that day in your life when you have to accept responsibility. In shorthand, it's much quicker to have characters grow up when you bump off their parents. Bambi's mother gets killed, so he has to grow up. Belle only has a father, but he gets lost, so she has to step into that position. It's a story shorthand."

It does sound darkly morbid but if that uplifting story is going to work, there has to be a parental bloodbath.  

I'm on Twitter @theroryjohn

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