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Grief with a Side of Popcorn

Disney Films Send Ambiguous Messages About Death


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Okay, I admit it. I’m a sucker for a stud on a stallion.

When it comes to kid flicks, I’ll suspend disbelief for any number of tired old tropes. I’ll endure sinister stepmothers and musical montages wherein fiercely loyal woodland creatures lead plucky-if-impossibly-thin-waisted princesses through whole new worlds of eye-twinkling wonder. Long as the theater’s dark and the popcorn’s crunchy, I’m immoderately tolerant of pixie dust, talking race cars, and other absurd cinematic conceits committed in the name of outright emotional manipulation.

Starshine Roshell

Sure. I’m down with that. But there’s one stunt perpetrated by children’s movies that really cracks my glass slipper, converting me from Happy to Grumpy in a single animated scene: It’s killing off a beloved character—only to revive him miraculously, senselessly, for a happy ending.

I’m not talking about faded fairies who can only be reanimated with our earnest belief, or giant iron robots who self-reassemble after being obliterated by missiles. I’m not whining about lion kings whose voices echo through their offsprings’ ears from beyond the grave. I don’t even take issue with close calls, near deaths, or even seemingly inescapable doom; the trash-incinerator scene in Toy Story 3 was one of the most riveting things I’ve ever seen on the screen, an almost shockingly mature, dialogue-less treatise on friendship and acceptance that left my heart racing, eyes brimming.

No, it’s all these actual-but-magically-impermanent deaths that really, er, poke my hontas: Flynn Rider, the hottie outlaw in Tangled; Baloo, the loafing bear in The Jungle Book; Diego, the saber-toothed tiger in Ice Age (yes, I know he was actually a smilodon; let it go, dino geeks).

All of them suffer mortal wounds and after their loved ones have mourned their passing—and, more importantly, my child has gone through all five stages of grief, leaking deftly wrung tears into my $6 bucket of otherwise obscenely delicious popcorn—the dudes jump up, shake it off, and rejoin the party.

Say wha … ?! Dramatic devices are one thing. Resurrection is another entirely (and don’t even get me started on Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia).

Some academics at the College of New Jersey, Ewing, once did a study on this subject. After analyzing 23 deaths from 10 Disney Classics films, they found that “Reversible death occurred in 26 percent of death scenes.” The conclusion of their paper, “Death in Disney Films: Implications for Children’s Understanding of Death,” was that “Some portrayals of death in Disney films send ambiguous messages about death and may be confusing to many young children.”

Um … ya think?!

I don’t mind death rearing its grim-hooded head in kids’ flicks; in fact, I welcome it as a gentle early lesson in the lifelong human endeavor to confront mortality. And I’m not averse to seeing my child weep. That’s an appropriate response to the violent passing of a character we’ve come, in the last 80 minutes, to rather adore.

But why put our kids through it all for naught? Herding them through the gut-twisting, hand-wringing exercise of grief, only to retract the sad facts minutes later with a jaunty “just kiddin’,” is lazy storytelling that only serves to make the inevitable—and irreversible—expirations of goldfish and, I’ll just say it, grandmas that much harder to fathom.

So I’m calling for an end to this deceitful script-advancing device. In fact, in the words of Robin Hood’s Prince John, I’m sentencing this misleading mechanism to sudden, instant, and even immediate death. The no-fakin’ kind.

Now there’s a dramatic demise I’d pay to see. Heck, I’ll even buy the popcorn.

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Starshine Roshell is the author of Wife on the Edge.

Jagwar Ma

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