Bambi’s mother, shot. Nemo’s mother, eaten by a barracuda. Lilo’s mother, killed in a car crash. Koda’s mother in Brother Bear, speared. Po’s mother in Kung Fu Panda 2, done in by a power-crazed peacock. Ariel’s mother in the third Little Mermaid, crushed by a pirate ship. Human baby’s mother in Ice Age, chased by a saber-toothed tiger over a waterfall. ...I have watched a bunch of Shirley Temple movies from the 1930s. She usually played an orphan. Sometimes there was a father figure, but never a mother.
A decade after my Peter Pan years, I began watching a lot of animated children’s movies, both new and old, with my son. The same pattern held, but with a deadly twist. Either the mothers died onscreen, or they were mysteriously disposed of before the movie began: Chicken Little, Aladdin, The Fox and the Hound, Pocahontas, Beauty and the Beast, The Emperor’s New Groove, The Great Mouse Detective, Ratatouille, Barnyard, Despicable Me, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and, this year, Mr. Peabody and Sherman. So many animated movies. Not a mother in sight.
The cartoonist Alison Bechdel once issued a challenge to the film industry with her now-famous test: show me a movie with at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man. Here’s another challenge: show me an animated kids’ movie that has a named mother in it who lives until the credits roll. Guess what? Not many pass the test. And when I see a movie that does (Brave, Coraline, A Bug’s Life, Antz, The Incredibles, The Lion King, Fantastic Mr. Fox), I have to admit that I am shocked … and, well, just a tad wary. ...
In a striking number of animated kids’ movies of the past couple of decades (coincidental with the resurgence of Disney and the rise of Pixar and DreamWorks), the dead mother is replaced not by an evil stepmother but by a good father. He may start out hypercritical (Chicken Little) or reluctant (Ice Age). He may be a tyrant (The Little Mermaid) or a ne’er-do-well (Despicable Me). He may be of the wrong species (Kung Fu Panda). He may even be the killer of the child’s mother (Brother Bear). No matter how bad he starts out, though, he always ends up good.
He doesn’t just do the job, he’s fabulous at it.
The article does not really explain why the movie moms are dead.