Here’s Why So Many Parents Die in Disney Movies

Beauty and the beast
Credit: D23

For many Disney fans, iconic Disney films were a part of our childhood. No matter your age, classics like Cinderella (1950), Peter Pan (1953), Hercules (1997), and Snow White (1937) were characters you knew and loved. As The Walt Disney Company grew, so did the plethora of films and characters.

Over the decades, Disney has produced even more favorites like Princess and The Frog (2009), Coco (2017) and Lilo & Stitch (2002). With all of these memorable characters comes adventure and the art of storytelling. In each tale, some fairytales are adapted from original stories, like Cinderella from The Grimms Brothers; oftentimes, the characters do not have their mother and father in the picture.


Credit: D23

Furthermore, if you recount many of your favorite films, some don’t have parents present at all. Pondering this idea, it’s interesting to notice just how many characters are in the same position. For example, Peter Pan has no parents at all, Ariel’s mother has passed away, Belle’s mother has passed away, Tiana’s father passes away, Simba’s father passes away, Cinderella’s father passes away, and the list continues.

So what is it with Disney films and absent parents?

Here’s Why So Many Parents Die in Disney Movies

Disney fans have some theories, and some of them track. But there are some undeniable questions about why so many parents are either absent, already dead, or passed away in Disney films. For starters, Walt Disney’s mother passed away in 1938, becoming a theory at large. The story goes that Walt purchased a house for his parents, which ended up having a gas leak. He sent members from the animation studio to tend to the issue, but inevitably, both of his parents got sick. While his father was hospitalized, his mother ended up passing away.

Princess and the frog

Credit: D23

Readers Digest reported, “Many speculate that Walt channeled his grief and guilt over his mother’s death into his subsequent films.” Ironically, many films prior to his mother’s death already had missing maternal figures, diluting the theory that it was Walt’s way of coping with his grief.

A second theory, but more concrete, comes from executive producer Ron Hahn, who worked on The Lion King (1994) and Beauty and the Beast (1991). In a report with Glamour, Hahn noted, “To begin with – there’s the more straightforward explanation – the characters have to face struggles in order to grow up and create a plot.” He went on to explain the theory in depth. He details,

I’ll give you two stories that are the reasons. I never talk about this, but I will. 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. Simba ran away from home but had to come back. In shorthand, it’s much quicker to have characters grow up when you bump off their parents. 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.

Wendy from Peter and Wendy

Credit: D23

From an executive producer’s perspective, it sure does seem more realistic than a theory of Walt’s personal struggles. As Disney continues to release films, both animated and live-action, we still see the idea of an absent parent or both parents. The Little Mermaid (2023) kept close to the original storyline, while the new rendition of Peter Pan, Peter and Wendy (2023) also has parents’ absences overall. Additionally, Disney is releasing its newest animated film this November, Wish (2023), which, so far, does not show any maternal or paternal figure.

The idea of growing up, experiencing struggle, and stepping up are all inspiring storylines to tell younger generations. Disney has always been great at communicating the big picture, theme, and overall message. Disney films never fall short of inspiration, adventure, motivation, and overall perseverance. The message that no dream is too big or too small is what makes Disney films so special, even if you’re doing it alone.

What are your thoughts on these theories?

About Sarahfina LoFaso

Sarahfina is an author, and adjunct professor with a passion for writing and of course, all things Disney! Cinderella is her favorite princess and movie, both the animated and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1997 version. In close second place is Hercules, tied with Saving Mr. Banks. Sarahfina enjoys writing about the history of Walt Disney and all the parks, along with food, dining, and resorts. Her favorite ride is the Tower of Terror, and her favorite restaurant right now is the San Angel Inn, in EPCOT. Most importantly, her must-have snack every Disney trip is the controversial turkey leg, because it reminds her of her family trips as a kid with her grandparents.