Disney’s Storytelling Tradition of an “Imperfect” Family

My sister pointed out to me that most Disney and Pixar protagonists have one parent (if any at all).  The other parent is either killed off, lost, or completely absent during the entire film.  Any film that you come up with off the top of your head (with only one exception that I’ll let you ponder about) lacks the model two-parent setup: Jasmine only has the Sultan as her Dad, Snow White has an absent father and an evil queen stepmother, Belle only has her father, Ariel only has King Triton as her dad, and Toy Story’s Andy has a single mom.  According to what my sister’s read, Walt Disney himself started this trend in Disney’s earliest films: Snow White, Cindarella, even Bambi.  Disney apparently felt that no one really has a perfect family life, so having both parents present in a story represented an unrealistic and idealistic image with which his audience would have trouble relating.  This may be true and even noble in its own respect; in a time where the American family was a particularly hyper-idealized image of a smiling couple with two kids and a dog, Disney sought to portray different types of families.  You could say that it broke down that idealized image.  It also showed that an “imperfect” family is something that is acceptable and normal.  It also addresses the pain Bambi felt when he lost his mother (and the horror that the rest of us felt) as something that can be overcome.

But I think there is something more important that we gain from Disney’s decision to consistently present us with single parents: it is much easier to digest the relationship between a child and one parent than it is to digest the relationship a child might have with a pair of parents.  Let’s take a look at this recent animated short, for example.  This 6 minute short film features a little bird and its mother bird during a pivotal time in its development; the film has no dialogue.


There’s a lot to examine in even this short, 6-minute clip.  You can acknowledge immediately that Piper has just one parent (and somehow through the magic of Disney animation we understand that it’s a mother).  The relationship between Piper and mother is very specific.  There is a moment at around 5:15 where the mother smiles lovingly at Piper playing on the shore.  There’s a bond there and a deep connection between two characters.  We aren’t distracted by a couple reacting here but instead just one character reacting to another.  And that simplicity does a lot.  Imagine two parents here; we’re already forced to question the relationship between those two parents before we can even begin to think about the relationship of the two individuals to Piper or the collective pair to Piper.  On top of all that, our own personal biases come into play – some might begin to compare and create judgments based on personal experiences with family life (which may or may not include two parents).  By eliminating all of that and keeping it to just one parent, Disney keeps the storytelling simple and straightforward.  It allows us to focus on that relationship – that loving bond that Piper has with mom.  All of the pretense and the overanalyzing fades away because it’s really more about this one relationship which was expertly conveyed by Pixar.  Perhaps there’s a better reason or maybe my sister’s original understanding of Walt Disney’s preference for the single parenting trend is accurate.  But there’s no denying that this element does, in fact, simplify and improve the storytelling.


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