October 6, 2017 – After watching your umpteenth Disney movie and yet another Star Wars sequel, the realization hits you like a ton of bricks: What happened to all the main characters’ parents? Why are Disney and Lucasfilm so fixated on parental slaughter as a storytelling device?
Disney Movies: A Parental Bodycount
For a child-focused form of entertainment, Disney’s films feature a startlingly long list of dead or missing parents. Before we delve into the Why’s of Disney-cide, let’s recap all the dead or missing bodies:
● Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs (1937) Lives with evil stepmother, the Queen
● Pinocchio (1940) No mother; Blue Fairy acts as surrogate mother
● Bambi (1942) Bambi’s mother is killed by a hunter
● Cinderella (1950) Both parents deceased; raised by cruel stepmother
● Peter Pan (1953) No mother; Wendy acts as surrogate mother
● The Jungle Book (1967) Mowgli’s mother is killed by the evil tiger Shere Khan
● The Fox and the Hound (1981) The red fox Tod’s mother is killed by a hunter
● The Little Mermaid (1989) Ariel’s mother is killed by pirates
● Beauty & the Beast (1991 & 2017) Belle’s mother dies from the plague
● The Lion King (1994) Simba’s father Mufasa dies in a stampede
● The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) Quasimodo’s mother is killed by Frollo
● Tarzan (1999) Tarzan’s parents are killed by Sabor, a leopardess
● Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) A crystal consumes Princess Kida’s mother
● Lilo & Stitch (2002) Lilo’s parents die in a car accident
● Finding Nemo (2003) Nemo’s mother & siblings are eaten by a barracuda
● Brother Bear (2003) Koda’s mother is killed by Kenai
● Frozen (2013) Anna and Elsa’s parents perish at sea
● Big Hero 6 (2014) 3-year-old Hiro’s parents die prior to the movie
Dumbo (1941) does not fit neatly into the above list of dead or missing parents. Instead, Dumbo’s mother, Mrs. Jumbo, is held in captivity for most of the movie.
So why all the dead or missing parents, especially deceased mothers, in Disney movies? In a 2014 interview with Glamour magazine, veteran Disney producer Don Hahn provided two theories.
“One reason is practical because the movies are 80 or 90 minutes long, and Disney films are about growing up. They’re about that day in your life when you have to accept responsibility. In shorthand, it’s much quicker to have characters grow up when you bump off their parents,” says Mr Hahn. “Bambi’s mother gets killed, so he has to grow up. Belle only has a father, but he gets lost, so she has to step into that position. It’s a story shorthand.”
A second controversial explanation – which some commentators and snopes.com dispute – deals with the psychological impact of Walt Disney’s mother’s death.
Don Hahn opines that, “The other reason — and this is really odd — Walt Disney, in the early 1940s, when he was still living at this house, also bought a house for his mom and dad to move into. He had the studio guys come over and fix the furnace, but when his mom and dad moved in, the furnace leaked and his mother died. The housekeeper came in the next morning and pulled his mother and father out on the front lawn. His father was sick and went to the hospital, but his mother died. He never would talk about it, nobody ever does. He never spoke about that time because he personally felt responsible because he had become so successful that he said, ‘Let me buy you a house.’ It’s every kid’s dream to buy their parents a house and just through a strange freak of nature — through no fault of his own — the studio workers didn’t know what they were doing.”
Mr. Hahn added that Walt Disney “had just made Fantasia, Dumbo, Pinocchio, Bambi, and Snow White in a five-year span. He buys a house for his mom and dad, they move down from Oregon, and his mom dies. Again, I’m not a psychologist to know it all, but it’s a really interesting story.”
While an interesting hypothesis, there is no evidence that Walt Disney (the man) ever ordered his writers and animators to kill off all the protagonists’ parents or mothers following the death of his own mother in 1938.
As Snopes.com points out: “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.”
Snopes.com also points out that “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.”
Star Wars and the Hero’s Journey
If Disney has been able to successfully use the centuries-old formula of a young orphan finding his or her way in the world, then it should come as no surprise that Star Wars might borrow this storytelling device as well.
George Lucas admitted as much in an article we published nearly four years ago: Joseph Campbell, George Lucas and the Power of Myth.
In short, Lucas stated that he was influenced by the works of author and lecturer Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), who had written The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). The book discusses Campbell’s theory of the journey of the archetypal hero found in many world mythologies.
Lucas said, “It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classic motifs … so I modified my next draft [of Star Wars] according to what I’d been learning about classical motifs and made it a little bit more consistent….”
Lucas refers to the Hero’s Journey, a narrative pattern that follows 12 stages. The Journey begins with the Hero in “an ordinary world”, followed by a “call to adventure”, the Hero’s refusal of the call, meeting a mentor, and so on. A full discussion exceeds the scope of this article, but you can read more about the 12 stages here and here.
Similar to Disney’s movies, Lucasfilm has adopted the “dead or absent parent” setup with great success beginning with Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). The tragedy of Luke Skywalker is especially painful in that he loses three sets of “parents” in the first film: First, he grows up never knowing his biological parents. Second, his caretakers (Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru) are slaughtered. And third, his mentor (Obi-wan Kenobi) perishes before his eyes.
Luke, like all the Disney protagonists before and after him, experiences a coming-of-age test in which he is thrust into a larger world and forced to deal with adversity. In the absence of parental guidance, his failures and successes are mile markers on the Hero’s Journey.
In 1999, George Lucas turned the story upside-down in The Phantom Menace. Once again, we witness a fatherless child, but this time with an enslaved mother (echoes of Dumbo) who is physically and spiritually unable to help guide her son. The twist is that an enraged young Anakin will morph into an Anti-Hero.
The torture and death of Anakin’s mother in Attack of the Clones (2002), rather than propel young Skywalker toward a Hero’s Journey for good, helps to push Anakin emotionally and psychologically over the edge and down a very dark path.
Predictably, Lucasfilm has used the parent-less formula again and again:
● Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015): Rey, a young female, is abandoned by her parents at an early age on the desert planet Jakku.
Following the Anti-Hero’s Journey, Kylo Ren loses his father, Han Solo – albeit by Kylo’s own hands – in his descent to the dark side.
● Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016): Jyn Erso, who becomes a petty criminal with a rebellious streak, is orphaned on the agrarian planet Lah’mu, where her mother is killed and her father is kidnapped by the First Order.
Just before Jyn and Cassian Andor’s deaths on the beaches of Scarif, Cassian tenderly tells Jyn she has fulfilled her purpose: “Your father would have been proud of you, Jyn.” He then hugs her as they both complete their journey.
● Star Wars Rebels (2014-2017): In Season Two, Ep. 9, the orphaned Ezra Bridger finally learns of the demise of his parents. Under the guidance of his mentor, Kanan Jarrus, Ezra’s journey will lead him back to his home planet in Season Three.
So Who Are Rey’s Parents?
If Lucasfilm follows the old formula, Rey will likely learn that her parents have either died or that one has turned to evil, thereby sealing their parental abandonment. But as many have speculated, couldn’t Luke Skywalker be Rey’s father? Perhaps. But parental reunification is unlikely.
The trailers indicate it is more probable that Luke fills the role of mentor in Rey’s journey. And if Luke unexpectedly descends into darkness, it may well be Rey’s Hero Story that she save him from himself.
So be prepared for any number of twists in Episodes VIII and IX. This is Star Wars, after all, the galaxy of a thousand heroes.
Joseph Campbell, George Lucas and the Power of Myth (posted January 29, 2014)
Star Wars as Allegory for the Vietnam War … or How Not to Offend Anyone (posted August 23, 2013)