Claim: Maternal figures were typically absent in Walt Disney's animated films because he felt responsible for his own mother's death.
Example: [Collected via e-mail, November 2008]
Origins: One of the biggest longshots in movie-making history paid off handsomely when Walt Disney risked virtually everything he
The economic rewards that Snow White brought to the Disney organization allowed Walt and his brother Roy not only to finance a new studio, but also to purchase a brand new North Hollywood home for their parents, who had been living in Portland, Oregon. Unfortunately, the move soon indirectly led to the death of Walt and Roy's mother, Flora Disney, a misfortune that reportedly haunted Walt for many years to come:
[His mother's death] may have been the most shattering moment of Walt Disney's life. Though he seldom exhibited emotion outside the studio, he was
Many people have noted that most of the animated feature films produced by the Disney Studios during Walt's lifetime shared the common element of absent maternal figures, and some have speculatively linked that factor to the circumstances of Walt's own life: Mothers aren't a significant element in Disney films, they reason, because he was bound up in the guilt of being responsible for his own mother's death and incorporated his real-life maternal void into his movies.
Although analyzing the motivations underlying artists' production of creative works is an inherently subjective process, we'd have to say that the weight of evidence indicates such a theory is merely a product of :
- The pattern of "motherless" Disney films was established well before the death of Flora Disney in 1938: Snow White had been completed and released, and Bambi and Pinocchio were already in production. In the Disney movie versions, Snow White's parents were not in evidence (the prologue stated that she was in the care of her "vain and wicked stepmother," the Queen), Bambi's mother was killed by a hunter early on in the film, and Pinocchio was a marionette with no "parent" save for the (male) woodcutter who carved him.
- The animated feature films produced by Disney during Walt's lifetime were not original creations which he deliberately fashioned to include characters without mothers; they were adaptations of traditional fairy tales and works of children's literature in which the "motherless child" aspect was already present.
- Most of the traditional tales and children's literature available to Disney for adaptation into animated films involved young protagonists whose mothers (or parents) were dead, absent, or inattentive, or who had been left in the care of stepparents, relatives, or others who were jealous or resentful about having to raise someone else's offspring. This circumstance is prevalent in such works because it is the central dynamic that propels the plots of those kinds of stories: They are coming-of-age tales, and the absence of one or both parents forces the youthful main characters to venture into the larger world without parental guidance and protection (particularly of the maternal kind), to learn the lessons necessary to overcome adversity, and to succeed or fail on their own terms. In the storybook milieu, Bambi must acquire the skills required to survive in the forest and achieve maturity, Pinocchio must learn to allow his conscience to guide him in determining right from wrong rather than acting on selfish impulse, and Dumbo must come to accept that a confident belief in his abilities (not a magic talisman) is the key to his success — steps which those characters could not (or would not) take if they were still receiving the benefits maternal protection and care.
Last updated: 12 September 2014
Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. ISBN 0-679-43822-X (p. 303-304). Shearer, Geoff. "Disney Keeps Killing Movie Mothers." The [Queensland] Courier-Mail. 7 March 2008. Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976. ISBN 0-7868-6027-8 (p. 148). Thomas, Bob. Building a Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire. New York: Hyperion, 1998. ISBN 0-7868-6200-9 (pp. 125-126).