Many people have noticed that the protagonists of Disney films often have a missing or dead parent. From Snow White to Anna and Elsa in Frozen, the motif is clear and hard to ignore. Although it is impossible to know the exact reason for this recurring theme, we do have some clues.
Don Hahn, a producer of The Lion King, believes he knows the answer to the question. Hahn thinks that the motif stems from Walt Disney’s own life. When Walt and his brother Roy found huge success with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they decided to share the wealth. The brothers bought their parents a home in North Hollywood, California.
Unfortunately, less than a month later, their mom, Flora Disney, died from asphyxiation due to carbon monoxide poisoning. The lethal gas had come from an incorrectly installed furnace. Walt and Roy were inconsolable and blamed themselves for her death. Even years later, Walt refused to discuss where Flora’s grave was (although he visited it frequently).
It’s easy to see how this terrible accident would influence the themes of Disney movies, but the truth may be more complicated than that. Consider that Snow White is one of the most famous examples of a Disney stepchild, but that movie had already been made by the time of the accident.
“Bambi” and “Pinocchio” were being created when the accident happened, and the titular characters of those films are two other famous examples of orphans. How did this prominent trend start before the accident that set them in motion? The answer is simply that much of the folklore that Disney gathered his stories from had main characters that didn’t have both parents. The Brothers Grimm and many other storytellers relied on this device to make their stories more interesting.
When you look more closely at movies in general, you’ll see plenty of examples of children who are missing one or both parents. Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz are all missing parents, and this compels the audience root for them and also propels the story along.
This isn’t to say that Walt Disney wasn’t deeply affected by the death of his mother. By all accounts, he was. And perhaps the tragedy helped him identify with his characters even more. What is clear is that the trend did not start or continue simply based on one sad event in Walt’s life. As is usually the case, the truth is much more complicated than that.