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On Death and Disney

December 9, 2015 - Betsy Bethel
University of Ottawa professor Ian Colman says there are more murders and deaths in animated movies than in top live-action dramas. Makes you think, doesn't it?

Coleman said he launched the research after his daughter was in hysterics, begging him to stop the movie, when the mother dinosaur is brutally attacked and killed by a T-Rex in "The Land Before Time." The father in the new film, "The Good Dinosaur," also dies in the beginning, carried off by a raging flood.

I can name several animated children's movies right off the bat in which a parent, parents or siblings die, usually in the beginning of the film, sometimes on camera, sometimes off: from "Snow White," "Cinderella," "Bambi" and "Fox and the Hound," to "The Lion King," "Finding Nemo," "Frozen," "Big Hero Six" and now "The Good Dinosaur." (All of which, by the way, are Disney or Disney Pixar films. "The Land Before Time" and "Paddington" are other examples of non-Disney films.)

And that's not counting the stories in which the child has lost one or both parents before the action begins, even if it isn't directly mentioned" "Beauty & the Beast," "The Little Mermaid," "The Rescuers," "Meet the Robinsons."

In an Associated Press article, Colman said: "Who deals with kids' problems? Parents do. If you want to make it a really compelling story, you've got to get the parents out of the picture so kids can go through this process themselves. One way to do that is to kill them off."

He continued: "It's a good opportunity to talk about death and have a difficult conversation. Sometimes we do need to be prodded a bit to have hard conversations."

I guess so ... I'm just not sure I want to be prodded by a film I just dropped $50 to take my family to see. We have talked with our daughter about these Disney deaths after watching them, but she actually has censored them herself. She refuses to re-watch one of my personal favorites, "Finding Nemo," for example.

The good news, parents, is that the younger the child, the less they are going to get hung up on the death part. They just want to see the pretty princesses and funny meerkats.

And for kids ages 5 and older, there's always online reviews on sites such as CommonSense Media, to see just what you're getting into, even with older films.

Vetting any movie is a good idea for other reasons, too. CommonSense, for example, tells you what to watch for in terms of violence, sex, language and even commercial product placement. It has reviews by parents, kids and media experts.

(As an aside, cartoon movies, many of them Disney, irk me when it comes to villains, too, even though I know there always has to be one. I will never forget my horror, for example, when I took my 3-year-old to see her first new Disney princess movie in the theater, "The Princess and the Frog," only to find the evil-doers are depicted as shadows. There went a whole year of effort trying to persuade her that the shadows in her room were harmless.)

As parents, we naturally want to protect our kids from death, loss and danger. We know they will have to face reality, sometimes sooner rather than later, for example when a pet dies or a great-grandparent or grandparent passes away. I see the validity in exposing them first to loss in a fantasy setting. I just wish it didn't always have to be the parent that bites it.

Now, 9, my daughter wants to use a cinema gift card she recently received as a Christmas gift to see "The Good Dinosaur" this weekend. I am going to warn her ahead of time about the death scene. She will probably bury herself behind my back or beg me to go to the bathroom so she doesn't have to watch that part. And I'm OK with that. What's strange is, when death touches her in real life, she is stoic. And she knows it. "I don't have that nerve in my brain," she recently told me, referring to whatever part of the brain causes a person to cry over a loss of life. My guess is she'll be unpacking that little quirk with a therapist later in life. Maybe the counselor will give her a prescription to watch "Finding Nemo." I hope I'm alive to see that!


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This image released by Pixar-Disney shows Spot, voiced by Jack Bright, left, and Arlo, voiced by Raymond Ochoa, in a scene from "The Good Dinosaur."