One of the many wonders of get-togethers with extended family is that you never know what you might end up talking about, and often times the most random conversation in the world ends up bubbling up at one point or another. I am happy to report that such a thing happened to me during my family’s Christmas in April celebration. Somehow, we had a conversation that started out talking about God knows what, then morphed to a conversation about The Land Before Time movies from the late 80s/early 90s, and by the grace of baby Jesus stumbled upon my aunt awesomely posing the question – “Have any of you noticed how the princesses in Disney movies NEVER have mothers?”
Naturally, that stopped us all in our tracks, and my mother for one was flabbergasted – she absolutely could not believe that was true. Due to the Disney upbringing that my cousin and I were blessed with, we proceeded to go through every Disney movie we could remember (for me, that went up to Pocahontas and included a couple later movies, like UP and Finding Nemo). What we realized was not only do the Princesses not have mothers, but only four main characters had a mother who survived the first five minutes of the movie, if she even made it into the movie at all, and two of those characters went fatherless instead.
Here is a list of the movies we could remember, along with the corresponding lead character/princess and their mother situation
- Snow White & The Seven Dwarves: Snow White parents both die early in her life and she lives with her evil step-mother queen, who is out for her head
- Bambi: Bambi, the young deer whose mother was infamously shot to open the movie and has prompted young children everywhere to ask “Mommy, what happened to Bambi’s mommy” for the last 80 years.
- Dumbo: Dumbo is one of the lucky ones – he has his mother by his side for the whole movie
- Pinocchio: Pinnochio, a marionette created by Gipetto that just wanted to be a real boy
- Cinderella: Cinderella, the initially motherless princess-to-be who was lorded over by her evil step-mother
- Sleeping Beauty: Princess Aurora, aka Sleeping Beauty, has the distinction of being one of only two Disney characters on this list with both parents in-tact throughout the movie
- The Jungle Book: Mowgli, an orphaned boy in the Indian Jungle
- Alice in Wonderland: Alice’s parents are never shown nor mentioned in the movie.
- Peter Pan: Peter Pan is one of the most famous fictional orphans ever, and my person hero, We are both Toys-R-Us kids
- Beauty & the Beast: Belle is another motherless wonder, living with her loveable yet probably crazy father Maurice
- Aladdin: Aladdin is an orphaned “Street Rat” and the Princess Jasmine is a motherless maiden, but she is lucky to have her jovial father and pet tiger by her side
- Lion King: Simba’s mother, Surabi, survives the length of the movie, but his father, Mustafa, dies is maybe the most traumatic fashion this side of Bambi’s mommy
- Finding Nemo: Nemo’s mother dies protecting him (as an egglet) from a barracuda at the very start of the movie
- The Little Mermaid: Ariel has no mother in the movie, and neither does she have a mother in the Hans Christen Andersen fairy tale the movie is based on
- Mulan: Fa Mulan has no mother in the movie
- Pocahontas: Pocahontas’ mother is long-deceased by the time of the events in the movie
- 101 Dalmations: That is way too many dalmatians to keep track of, not even gonna try it.
Of course, this got my wheels spinning, so I had to look in to whether good old Walt (funny side note about him – the Arizona State University Sun Devil is a caricature of Walt Disney by a disgruntled Disney illustrator) had some mommy issues. It has been widely speculated that Disney’s movies dealt with orphans and motherless characters so often because he is suspected to have blamed himself for his own mother’s death. After his first successful movie, Snow White, he moved his parents from Portland, OR down to a new home in North Hollywood. Unfortunately, his mother passed away within a month of moving in to the home from Carbon Monoxide poisoning by a leaky furnace.
This tragedy may very well have played into this theme of motherless movies, but a couple of facts exist that work to rebut the theory, or at least lessen its impact. Disney’s first three movies, Snow White, Pinocchio, and Bambi, were all motherless movies in production before his own mother’s death. Additionally, most Disney movies produced during his tenure were not wholly original works – rather, they were largely derivative of classic works or folk stories. That being said, it is a pretty crazy coincidence, and although we will never know why Walt Disney chose to take so many of his movies down that path, the man was clearly a genius who knew that movies with motherless main characters creates a compelling story line that touches us and endears people to the characters in his movies.