Death in Disney Movies: Making The Most of Teachable Disney Moments
I must caution you this post contains minor spoilers, as if the given of ‘happily ever after’ weren’t spoiler enough.
If you have children, especially of the little girl variety, you’ve probably seen Disney’s princess flick Frozen. In my household, we’ve seen it too many times to count. I generally dislike sitting through the same movie more than once, but I must admit this one is kind of delightful. Short enough, good soundtrack, decent humor, gorgeous animation – what the heck, give me a tub of buttery popcorn and I’m in!
As we all know, Disney fairy tales tend to follow a certain recipe and Frozen is no different – one handsome prince; a doe eyed princess (x2 this time around); a pinch of too-adult-for-the-kids humor; a dab of peril; simmer until you achieve happily ever after; and voila you have movie magic.
About 15 minutes into the movie we see that ‘Frozen’ also calls for another common theme (spoiler: death) when the princesses’ father and mother are killed in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment wrapped up in the later 1 minute and 30 seconds of what starts out as one of the film’s sweetest songs. First we see a boat carrying the King and Queen of Arendelle get sucked into a stormy sea then flash to an image of servants covering their portrait, flash to an image of their daughter Anna standing at what appears to be a funeral, and flash to Anna and her and her sister sad and alone. The most overt reference to what happened was when Anna says to her sister Elsa, ‘we only have each other’. That’s it.
As an adult it took ME about 30 seconds to realize what happened and then another 30 seconds to contemplate how to quickly explain their death to my nieces, who were now looking at me all like, “why are the pretty girls sad?”. Leaving only about 30 seconds to whisper, “THEIR MOMMY AND DADDY DIED”, before the movie flashes forward a few years (I think?) to a much happier and non-griefy time. I was left thinking, “Gee I hope their death wasn’t an integral part of the plot because there’s no way my kids understand what just happened.”
Turns out it was semi-relevant to the plot, but the girls didn’t seem phased. I think kids are just used to the inexplicable absence of adult supervision in television and movies. Honestly, vague references to death are kind of common practice with children’s movies, so if my nieces don’t get too hung up on it I often just let it go. I probably could have glossed over this instance, but after our first encounter with Frozen I knew our relationship was nowhere near over so I figured I might as well gauge their understanding of what happened.
The concept of death is not new to my children so when I told them in the theater that the parents ‘died’ they vaguely understood the implications. The part they found most confusing is the ‘how’. The movie didn’t make their cause of death obvious (to a child at least) and it would never have occurred to my nieces that people die in ships at sea leaving their young adult children all alone. In subsequent viewings of this scene, the girls have watched with greater understanding and asked additional questions about the funeral and why the parent’s portrait was being covered, thus building on their understanding of what happens after someone dies.
I’m not sure I would go so far as to say this was definitively a ‘teachable moment’. In this instance Disney kind of leaves it up to you and honestly, depending on the child’s age and awareness, you may not feel the need to talk about it. If you do, you may want to keep the following tips in mind. In fact it may not hurt to keep these tips in your back pocket when watching any movie with a child. Not every movie warrants a conversation, but most children’s movies have a conflict and a moral lesson in there somewhere.
- Observe how the child responds to what they’re watching.
- Ask questions about their understanding of what happened.
- Fill in the blanks about what happened with clear and honest responses, even if that means giving them a little more information than they ask or introducing new words or concepts. Don’t lie or skirt the truth, this often leads to more confusion. (For example: It would have been easy for me to avoid the dreaded ‘D’ word by telling the girls that the King and Queen went on a trip and never came back. But then the message they are then left with is that sometimes parents go away on trips and never return to their children. That’s not much better!)
- Discuss how they think the characters are probably feeling. Discuss times they have felt this way.
- If necessary, discuss the events of the movie in the context of their life. For example, if something hits particularly close to home, address how it is and is not the same.
The instances of death in Disney movies are abundant, but only in a select few is it so integral to the plot that a parent/child discussion is absolutely warranted. Here are the three we’ve recently discussed in my household: (Feel free to share any additional examples – Disney or non-Disney – in the comments below)
Bambi: The death of Bambi’s mother:
Ugh…this scene gives me a pit in my stomach. Most of us have seen it, when Bambi and his mom hear hunters near by they make a run for the thicket but when they get there Bambi finds himself alone. He walks through the snowy woods calling for his mother until a buck arrives and tells him “Your mother can’t be with you anymore”. It’s brutal.
Things you may want to discuss with your child:
- Gauge whether they understand what happened to Bambi’s mother.
- Ask, why can’t his mother be with him anymore?
- Discuss how Bambi might be feeling.
- Discuss who might be able to take care of Bambi now.
- Discuss adults in their own lives who sometimes help take care of them.
Lion King: The death of Mufasa (Simba’s dad)
Mufasa is killed by his evil brother Scar while trying to save his son Simba. When Simba can’t wake his father he first cries for help and then, finding they are all alone, tearfully climbs into his father’s lifeless arms. There’s really no way around this scene, it’s extremely integral to the movie.
Things you might want to discuss with your child:
- Gauge their understanding of what happened to Mufasa.
- Discuss why Simba was not able to wake him.
- Explain how death is different from sleeping and that when someone dies they can not wake up.
- Discuss how they think Simba feels.
After this scene Simba, thinking he’s responsible for his father’s death, runs away and never returns out of shame and guilt. Children, especially young children around the age of 4, often think they are responsible for negative events in their life like death and divorce.
- Ask the child why think they Simba runs away.
- Help to clarify why Simba is not responsible for the death of his father.
Up: Carl and Ellie’s Story
I defy you to watch Ellie and Carl’s love story and not cry. I was so not prepared for this scene the first time I watched it. My eldest niece was still young at the time and I remember her being perplexed by my emotional state. All I could say was, “It’s just so sad!”. Anyway, a lot of ground is covered in this 4 and a half minutes (a lifetime in fact). We see both Ellie’s grief after her baby dies in utero and towards the end we see Carl’s grief after Ellie dies from terminal illness.
Things you might want to discuss with your child:
- Ask them if they have any questions about what happened to Ellie or Carl.
- Depending on their age, they may not have picked up on the death of the baby. If they are curious but can’t make sense of why Ellie and Carl were preparing for a baby that never came, be honest and explain what happened.
- Discuss Ellie’s illness. If they seem concerned, reassure them about the differences between illness like the flu and terminal illness.
- Discuss how Carl probably feels.
- Discuss why they think Ellie made the scrap book for Carl.
- Discuss why they think Carl finally takes the trip that he and Ellie had been saving for.
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