- Characters in children’s films are twice as likely to die than characters in films for adults. Traumatic death scenes in Disney films actually serve an important purpose. They allow children to learn about death and dying in an accessible way, opening up the conversation about “taboo” subjects.
It’s unlikely that there’s a person alive today who wasn’t traumatised when Bambi’s mother got shot.
In fact, in pretty much every Disney or Pixar film, a beloved character dies, and it’s always heartbreaking. However, according to new research from the University of Buffalo, watching these upsetting scenes early on is actually an important part of starting conversations about death.
The study, published in the Journal of Death and Dying, found that moments such as Mufasa being thrown into the stampede, and Nemo’s mother being eaten by a barracuda, provide critical opportunities for adults to discuss with their children the fact that everybody dies.
Researchers Kelly Tenzek and Bonnie Nickels analysed 57 Disney and Pixar films in which there were 71 character deaths overall. If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is – the study found that characters are over twice as likely to die in films for young viewers than in those aimed at adults.
Themes emerged from the analysis that could be discussed with children, such as the character’s status in the film, the cause of death, whether the death was presented or implied, and also whether they were the good or the bad guy.
For example, many “baddies” in Disney films end up dying in a similar way. Gaston from “Beauty and the Beast,” Scar from “The Lion King,” and Captain Hook in “Peter Pan,” all fall to their deaths in some way or another. There are a few theories for this, one of the most popular being because it means the protagonist has won, without them actually committing murder. They get to still be the hero, without actually having done anything immoral.
“These are important conversations to have with children, but waiting until the end of life is way too late and can lead to a poor end-of-life experience,” said Tenzek. “We believe that Disney and Pixar films are popular and accessible for children and adults so that a difficult conversation can begin in a less threatening way earlier in life.”
They also looked at the reactions of other characters to the deaths, and whether the death was reversible in the make-believe context of the film. According to Tenzek, this helps children start to differentiate between real-life and fantasy.
“First, some of the portrayals of death are unrealistic, such as when the character returns or returns in an altered form,” she said. “But this is a chance for a child to better understand the difference between fiction and real life.”
Ultimately, making conversations about death and dying less taboo, children can explore their emotional response to death better. In fact, more recent films such as “Big Hero 6” and “Inside Out” tackle bereavement directly.
Tenzek ultimately wants to help parents have these difficult conversation with their children sooner or later. She says it doesn’t have to be a direct conversation, but children’s films can be a useful tool that naturally fit into their understanding of life and death as they get older.
“We acknowledge a child’s psychological development is important when considering these discussions,” said Tenzek. “It’s not our intent to have these conversations with a three-year-old, but as children mature, then the films fit naturally into that growth.”