Last week, as the rain lashed outside, my daughter and I settled down for an afternoon of family nostalgia. The type that Walt Disney films excel at.
The kind that has given Disney a special position in our house. To us, the brand suggests a world of family values and bygone traditions. A place where, no matter the adversity faced, good WILL triumph over evil.
Disney films speak to our heart and embroider the lives of our children with a sense of security in an uncertain world.
So it was, this rain-soaked day, we laughed and cried our way through a hat trick of Disney favourites: the heart-rendingly beautiful Bambi, the gloriously regal Lion King and the eternally charming Finding Nemo.
But later, I realised something else that binds Disney films, other than good old nostalgic charm: an absence of parents.
Bambi, abandoned by his father before birth, experiences the hunting and subsequent shooting of his mummy. A tragedy that still reduces me to uncontrollable sobs four decades after I first saw it with my own mother.
That’s not all. In the Lion King, Simba is implicated in the death of his father and runs away in a vain attempt to escape his misery.
While Nemo – the rebellious fish – is the sole survivor of a violent barracuda attack on his mother and siblings and spends much of the story estranged from his father.
The realisation that these three films all drew on a parent-less theme made me reel. Surely it was only coincidence?
Apparently not. For Disney, that most child-friendly of organisations, appears to have something of a parent problem.
Since its formation in the Twenties, Disney’s output has featured a steady supply of dysfunctional and broken families.
Dumbo, like Bambi, still devastates audiences, as the fatherless baby elephant is separated from his mother after she is locked up for her apparent psychosis.
The moggies in the Aristocats – a personal childhood favourite – are also fatherless. Neither Ariel (The Little Mermaid) or Belle (Beauty And The Beast) have a mother.
Even more recently, fans worldwide have delighted in the final instalment of Toy Story, as Andy – the film’s main character – is raised by a single parent mother.
Not to worry, though, in the total absence of his father, Andy’s key male influence is a wooden cowboy.
And it’s not just Disney’s cartoon output that is subject to this parental peculiarity; its non-animation TV shows and movies are, too.
On Disney’s TV channel, the popular Hannah Montana – played by the precocious Miley Cyrus – learns the teenage ropes from her single parent father because her mother is AWOL.
On the big screen, The Game Plan chronicles a ten-year-old girl searching for her long-lost father after the untimely – although not entirely unpredictable – demise of her single parent mother.
And the Grammy- nominated Enchanted captures Giselle, an archetypal Disney princess, adapting to the harsh environment of New York as a motherless young girl.
By this point in my research, I was becoming increasingly disturbed by the absence of parental role models in the world of Walt Disney. And there was more.
Some Disney characters aren’t even fortunate enough to have one parent and are orphaned before the opening credits are over.
Baby Tarzan was abandoned in the jungle after the savaging of his parents by a leopard. And there’s Tod in The Fox And The Hound and Arthur in The Sword In The Stone, who are left to pursue their destinies without parents.
I wonder, is this distinct lack of parental care in Disney productions used for dramatic effect?
Is it there to give the main protagonist an opportunity to face their personal challenges without the guidance of a parent – or is there more to this?
Might the death of Walt Disney’s mother – and the lifelong guilt this left her son with – be the catalyst for the death of parents in Disney?
In 1938 and riding high with the proceeds from his first big screen movie Sleeping Beauty, Walt bought his mother, Flora, and his father, Elias, a house in LA as a golden wedding anniversary present.
Within days of moving in, Flora complained about the stultifying temperatures coming from the central heating boiler and her doting son arranged for a swift replacement.
Days later, Flora died from asphyxiation caused by the new, poorly-installed, boiler.
Might Walt Disney’s misplaced guilt over his mother’s death have led him to airbrush parents – mothers in particular – out of his works?
And has that motivation, after his death in 1966, become a Disney blueprint?
Certainly, it would explain the types of folk stories and fairytales that Disney has acquired for adaptation, even when there are numerous other traditional tales that feature a mother and father.
The company animated Cinderella (no mother), Snow White (no mother or father, but a wicked stepmum) and The Jungle Book (orphaned Mowgli, raised by a bear and a tiger).
But perhaps most audacious in this regard was the purchase of J.M. Barrie’s epic Peter Pan, where the boy-child not only had responsibility for a whole island of orphans (The Lost Boys) but Wendy’s parents socialised constantly and left their children in the care of the family dog.
There is a third way to explain Disney’s apparent downer on parents.
Might the company – and its output – be a true reflection of our disparate society and the obvious disintegration of the traditional nuclear family?
Or might it be the other way around? Might Disney have played its own part in the demise of family values given that we – and our children – have fallen for this wholesome entertainment for decades?
Have we subconsciously imbibed this airbrushing out of parental figures from its films?
If nothing else, Disney stands accused of failing to honour that most sacred of bonds – that of the mother and the father to their children.
Now, that is hardly family entertainment, is it?