The Tragic Reason Why Disney Movies Rarely Have Mother Characters

Maleficent executive producer Don Hahn reveals a shocking story from Walt Disney's past that could attribute to the mom-less movies

By Jenna Mullins Sep 12, 2014 6:18 PMTags
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At this point, most Disney fans know that if they are sitting down to watch a Disney movie on a Friday night with a glass of red wine and their cats sleeping next to them (ugh, that sounds so amazing we wish we were doing that right now), they know that they'll either be watching characters who lose their parents, or who just simply don't have any. It's a Disney thing.

But when you think about, it's mostly the mother characters that are missing in Disney films. The child characters either lose them before the movie even begins, or they just aren't mentioned at all, or the mother characters aren't given much screen time. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin…where are the mothers? What happened? And why is this a recurring theme?

Well, now we might have an answer. 

In a revealing interview with Glamour, longtime Disney producer Don Hahn gave his two theories on why there are rarely any parents, or more specifically, mom characters in Disney films. One theory comes from a practical stand point, but the other theory stems from a truly tragic story from Walt Disney's past.

"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," Don offers. "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."

Makes sense. Of course, a lot of fairy tales that the films are based on include the death of the parents, and Disney is just staying true to the original material.

But this next theory about the lack of motherly characters is positively heartbreaking, and it comes from a little-known story about the man behind the magic: Walt Disney himself.

"The other reason—and this is really odd—Walt Disney, in the early 1940s, when he was still living at this house, also bought a house for his mom and dad to move into. He had the studio guys come over and fix the furnace, but when his mom and dad moved in, the furnace leaked and his mother died. The housekeeper came in the next morning and pulled his mother and father out on the front lawn. His father was sick and went to the hospital, but his mother died. He never would talk about it, nobody ever does. He never spoke about that time because he personally felt responsible because he had become so successful that he said, 'Let me buy you a house.' It's every kid's dream to buy their parents a house and just through a strange freak of nature—through no fault of his own—the studio workers didn't know what they were doing."

Don goes on to say that he truly believes Walt was "haunted" by the death of his mother from that point on, and that is why Walt tended to steer away from including mom characters in his future films.

"That idea that he really contributed to his mom's death was really tragic. If you dig, you can read about it. It's not a secret within their family, but it's just a tragedy that is so difficult to even talk about. It helps to understand the man a little bit more. He had just made FantasiaDumboPinocchioBambiand Snow White in a five-year span. He buys a house for his mom and dad, they move down from Oregon, and his mom dies. Again, I'm not a psychologist to know it all, but it's a really interesting story. To me, it humanizes Walt. He was devastated by that, as anyone would be."

Do you guys think the tragic and sudden death of Walt's mom is the reason why parents are always getting killed off in Disney films or why mothers are rarely seen in the movie? Or can it be attributed to the first theory, that it moves the story along faster? 

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