Our Netflix queue recently delivered the Disney movie The Princess and the Frog. It's an adaptation of the old frog prince fairy tale, and all and all it's pretty good. John Lasseter, who proved himself at Pixar, is an excellent storyteller, and Disney is benefiting greatly from his influence. (When I first saw Bolt, my first thought was, "This was about as good as a Pixar movie," and it didn't surprise me to see Lasseter's name in the credits.)
When the movie starts, you see a young girl, Tiana, with her mom and dad. Then, we flash forward, and the girl has grown up. She talks to a picture of her dad in a military uniform, and soon we see her mother in person. They make references to the father being "gone", but they don't immediately reveal his status. My wife and I wondered to each other, "Is he away at war, or has he died?" When, later, we finally hear the words "dad" and "died" used together, our response was, "Of course he's dead; it's a Disney movie."
Disney movies seem to have this "thing" about having a broken family. It's like they hate having a complete, traditional family. Seriously. Let's review. These are animated movies, where a main or important character and their family is present.
- Snow White, Cinderella — wicked stepmothers
- The Little Mermaid — Ariel's mother not mentioned; Prince Eric's parents never appear (being a prince, one would assume a king and queen, but they don't even show for his own wedding)
- Beauty and the Beast — Belle's mother not mentioned
- Aladdin — Jasmine's mother has died
- The Lion King — father dies
- The Emperor's New Groove — parents presumed dead for him to be a young emperor (mitigating factor: Emperor Kuzco gets his "new groove" from traditional family man Pacha)
- Lilo & Stitch — parents have died
- Brother Bear — Kenai kills Koda's mother, who appears to be his only living parent
- Chicken Little — mother has died
- Meet the Robinsons — orphan (mitigating factor: adopted into traditional – albeit weird – family)
- Bolt — Only Penny's mother is seen; no father mentioned (and, Penny's character in the TV show within the movie only has a father; no mother is mentioned)
- The Princess and the Frog — dad dies
Note that Pixar isn't much better:
- Toy Story — Andy's mother is there, but there's never even a mention of a father
- Finding Nemo — Mother is killed in the opening scene
- Ratatouille — Remy clashes with his father, no mother mentioned
- Up — Russell's home life is uncertain; we know his father doesn't spend time with him much, and there's a woman who lives with them that's not his mother (nanny? stepmom?)
Snow White, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast probably aren't fair to mention, considering they come from fairy tales and stories that have the situation already established. I'll concede that in some cases, the family situation is part of the story — The Lion King, The Emperor's New Groove, Brother Bear, and Meet the Robinsons wouldn't have been the same story by a long shot if they were in traditional families that stayed whole throughout the movie. Finding Nemo might've worked (a father flipping out over a son being kidnapped, even if he has a wife and other kids safe at home, isn't much of a leap), but seeing his wife and all his other kids die before hatching gave him a reason for being neurotic that you could relate to.
But the rest? Could Lilo have been a troubled kid even with loving parents? Absolutely. Could Tiana have still been trying to build the restaurant for her dad if he was alive at home, just old and retired and unable to work for himself? Yes. Would Toy Story have been any less of a story if Dad was at least around to help with the move, or the birthday party, or to open presents at Christmas? Could Jasmine have had a mother who shared in her father's concern for her future?
So, what's the deal? Is Disney just trying to make their stories accessible to even those with broken families? Is it just easier to not have to write an extra character into the story, or cheaper to not hire another voice actor or animator? Or do they really have something against a mother, a father, and a child together that they avoid the situation as much as possible?