When Finding Nemo flooded into cinemas in 2003, Disney had yet another heart-warming story to add to their long collection of masterpieces. However, it also became one of the countless Disney films with the main character lacking one or more parents. A seemingly winning formula, Walt Disney has overused this backstory, with the single/no parent trend seen in some of the company’s classics such as Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Pinocchio, Bambi, The Lion King and even in its more recent box office hits like Frozen and Tangled. So why does Disney do this and what messages do their common ‘orphan’ themed films teach?
The opening scene of Finding Nemo is a brilliant example of how partially orphaning the protagonist can easily elicit sympathy from the audience and create a heartbreakingly devastating beginning to a film. Viewers are introduced to Marlin and Coral, two clownfish about to become parents to four hundred offspring. However, after the audience sees how excited and joyous the couple are, it all abruptly changes with a large Barracuda attacking Marlin’s wife and devouring all of their developing children. But there is one fragile egg that manages to survive, which Marlin- left alone in his loss- vows to protect with his life. Walt Disney is quite smart in a way, killing off a character to provide motive and backstory for another. But character and audience connection are by far not the only reason why Disney is recycling this theme.
Some research into the corporation found that Walt Disney himself had actually lost his mother to an accident just a year after the release of his first film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The profit from Disney’s first feature-length film, allowed him and his brother, Roy to buy a new home for their parents, Elias and Flora Call Disney. But a month after settling into the Hollywood house, their mother complained to Walt about a problem with the fumes from the gas furnace. Disney dismissed his mother’s worries, however, on November the 6th 1938, Flora Disney was pronounced dead from asphyxiation, a lung problem caused by the fumes.
Is this the wand that set the single/no parent curse on his company…or was it a triumph? A quote from Walt about the tragic incident shows his grief and empathy; “My dad was just lost without my mother. It was the darnedest thing. After she died, I never felt so sorry for anybody in my life as I did my dad… It was a very sad thing.”
“A kick in the teeth may just be the best thing in the world for you”- Walt Disney
It simply can’t have been a mere coincidence that every single one of the seventy-two Disney movies that Walt was alive to create excluded either one or more parents from the family picture. Perhaps Walt did this in a reflection of his own life and his guilt that he didn’t do anything about the smoke that took his mother.
It seems, however, even despite its grim and personal origins, the parentless idea used in an overwhelming amount of Disney films has proved to be extremely successful for the company. Walt Disney used his pain, grief and personal experience, to effortlessly communicate to the audience the pain and grief of his orphaned characters in his films; the same that was inflicted upon himself. Walt Disney once said, “All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all of my troubles and obstacles have strengthened me…You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may just be the best thing in the world for you”.
And so this ‘kick in the teeth’ that Disney experienced after his mother’s death, did seem to be the best thing for him. It helped him to craft a company, shape stories and entrance viewers all around the world with this winning formula.
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