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You probably don't want to be a redshirt in Star Trek any more than you'd want to be a beloved character in a Joss Whedon project. These people have a tendency to die. In that respect, if you're in a children's movie, you don't want to be the parent. A recent study was done, which revealed that parents of main characters were much more likely to die in a children's movie than they would in a film for adults.
Bambi. Finding Nemo. The Lion King. Spoiler alert: Mom or Dad dies. It's no secret that animated heroes tend to lose their parents from time to time. The Atlantic ran an article focusing on a study called "Cartoons Kill: casualities in animated recreational theater in an objective observational new study of kids' introduction to loss of life," in which researchers compared some of the top grossing animated kids movies from the past 75 years or so, with films for adults from the same timespan. Beyond determining that a higher percentage of important characters died in the animated films they screened than in the dramatic films for adults, the study showed that parents of main characters were five times more likely to die in a children's movie than in a film for adults.
It isn't just death that's plentiful in children's movies, it's also violence, as the study's sample included multiple stabbings, gunshot deaths and animal attacks.
The findings are interesting, but is it fair to suggest that most -- if not all - parent deaths in kids movies serve some purpose as it relates to the story or character set-up? Nemo's mother, for example, is killed off trying to protect her young. The result of her (and Nemo's siblings') death is not only that it leaves Marlin to raise Nemo by himself, but it also leaves him incredibly anxious about his son's wellbeing at all times, which paves the way for the whole story. In The Lion King, Mufasa's death is just as crucial to setting up the story. As heartbreaking as it is, it's necessary for the plot. And would Bambi's story have had as much of an impact if not for the loss of his mother?
As violent and upsetting as many of the parent deaths are in these films, they do seem to be crucial to the story. The question then becomes, why does a character need to lose their parents in order for the story to work? Perhaps because losing a parent, particularly at a young age, is a life-altering scenario, and one that -- in the case of younger characters -- often puts the character without the support system they once had. For a recent example, see Disney's Frozen, which set Anna and Elsa up to be on their own when their parents were killed in a shipwreck. Would the story have made any sense of Elsa and Anna's parents were around to monitor the situation or offer guidance and support?
The study concludes that children's movies aren't an escape from the gore and carnage one might find in "typical" American movies, but "are in fact hotbeds of murder and mayhem." That seems like a harsh verdict, though it might not be entirely unfair when we consider the violent nature of many animated movie death scenes. Regardless, it does seem evident that children's films have not universally aimed to shield kids from the atrocities of life. If we remove the violent aspect of the equation, we could argue that death is a part of life, and for kids who are fortunate enough not to experience the loss of a loved one firsthand, movies may be their first introduction to the subject, albeit in a more sensationalized way. For those children who have experienced loss at a young age, perhaps that adversity is something they can identify with on some level with the lead character. As someone who can relate with the latter group, I don't think that's necessarily such a bad thing.