Monday, October 6, 2008
I remember when I was 4 or 5 years old going to the movie theatre with my family. I watched as Bambi ran toward the thicket away from the hunters and then turned around looking for his mother. My little 4 year old brain had no idea what was going on. I remember whispering to my mother in the theatre "What happened to Bambi's mommy?"
Does anyone else get teary eyed when they see this scene? Maybe I was just a slow child but I think there was a reason a four year old wouldn't get what happened in this scene. The death scene in Bambi is very subtle. They never come out and say, "Bambi's mother died" and they never show anything close to a death. How was young Bambi even to understand what happened? "Your mother can't be with you anymore." So, she had to go out of town? The response of my nephew (who was 5 at the time) was, "She's ok, right Mom. She's just hurt but she'll be ok." Denial.
Now compare that scene to this more contemporary Disney death scene.
Big difference. In The Lion King, nothing is subtle. You watch as Mufasa plunges to his death. In a totally heart wrenching scene you see the dead Mufasa as Simba tries to wake him up. Nothing left to the imagination. On a positive note, the grief response in The Lion King is much more appropriate. Poor Bambi gets just one tear then he has to turn around and walk away. You've had a whole 2 minutes to grieve, Bambi. Now it's time to move on.
This big shift in how death is dealt with in Disney films happened around the 1970's. Movies that were made before that (Bambi 1942) tended to have more implicit death scenes. After the 1970's, (The Lion King 1994) death scenes were more explicit, showing the actual death and/or the deceased. Maybe the thought was to shelter children from violence and death. Which approach is better?
In one study, Disney movies were taken at random and their death scenes analyzed. They found 23 death scenes in 10 movies. In these scenes, they looked at several different things including who died (antagonist vs protagonist), how the death was depicted (implicit vs explicit, permanent vs temporary), the emotional response, and the cause of the death (accidental, justified vs unjustified). While the study had relatively small numbers, they did find some interesting things. 39% of deaths lacked any emotional response. Although most of the deaths overall are portrayed as permanent, half of the protagonists that died come back in some way.
As the study points out, death in Disney movies is not all bad. The Lion King has been used as a tool to help teach children about death and grief. Movies can be used as a more comfortable way to bring up difficult discussions. But they could also send confusing messages to children about death and grief.
References: Cox M, et al. Death in Disney films: Implications for children’s understanding of death. Omega. 50(4). 2004-2005. 267-80.