Whether it was Bambi’s mother, Mufasa, or Syndrome, everyone remembers that one Disney death that really made an impact. Likely, it was your first encounter with a character meeting an untimely demise. Well, according to a new study from the University of Buffalo, Disney films can actually play a huge part in helping kids understand and accept death.
Why Disney movies specifically? Well, first and foremost, Disney (and Pixar) movies feature a lot of death. In fact, according to Business Insider, researchers Kelly Tenzek and Bonnie Nickels analyzed 57 Disney and Pixar films and found that, overall, there were a total of 71 character deaths. Researchers also noted that characters in kid’s movies are twice as likely to die than characters in movies aimed for adults.
In addition to all the death, the study, which was published in OMEGA Death and Dying, confirmed that the movies also feature themes that allow kids to handle death in a way that they would otherwise not be able. The movies use intentional patterns to teach kids lessons about life and death via “the character’s status in the film, the cause of death, whether the death was presented or implied, and also whether they were the good or the bad guy.”
An example of one of these themes in action is the fact that in several Disney movies, the main villain falls to their death instead of actually being killed by the protagonist. Think of Gaston in Beauty and the Beast or Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Why is this significant? According to the study, this frees the hero from responsibility and makes the death feel more justified in the eyes of young kids.
Disney movies also benefit from the fact that they are primarily animated. This allows kids to engage with the concept of death without it feeling too real. A child can know that a character such as Mufasa has died but also know that the character is ultimately fictional, which in turn allows them to grasp the concept of death without being overwhelmed.
So next time you’re watching The Lion King for the 100th time with your kid and you’re totally Timon and Pumbaa’d out, appreciate that, in addition to lodging the rhyme of “thin-skinned” and “downwind” in your head for the rest of the day, it may just help your kid come to understand mortality a bit more.