There is an off-joked about trend in Disney movies– if you happen to have helped give birth to a protagonist, you better get your will in order.
The number of Disney protagonists with two surviving parents is probably less than a tenth of the cannon*. I could come up with only a few examples– Rapunzel’s parents in Tangled are around to watch their daughter grow up (although they aren’t really part of the narrative at all), and, um. uh. I had another example I was going to use, but forgot it mid sentence.
It’s not very many, is the point. If you ever see both parents, you can set your watch on the fact that one of them is going to die before the credits roll. Sometimes, the movie’s gotta troll first (Did you know that Bambi nearly kills the mother twice before she finally gets shot? It’s almost frustrating to watch), other times they’re just never around and no one bothers explaining why (Beauty and the Beast), or they’ve passed away before the movie begins (Cinderella, Princess and the Frog).
I always thought this was a weird quirk, but never bothered looking into it. One, because I’m not a parent and actual parents are already doing a great job handling parents in Disney and two, because I didn’t think it was that important. Parents are hard to write, and if they aren’t needed for character motivation, just hand wave them. Disney movies are stories about children, no one wants to see adult life.**
Well… protagonist age has increased as Disney has gotten older. Snow White is a terrifying 7 in the Brother’s Grimm tale, and Disney aged her (in the 40s) to the much more mature 14-ish, which is better but deep in the land of “Seriously?!”
In contrast, Anna is 18 during most of the action of Frozen and Elsa is 21. My little brother is younger than the protagonists of a movie that is ostensibly marketed to people younger than him. Disney movies are happening to older and older people– so, you know, these aren’t entirely stories about children anymore. Hell, at the rate we’re going, maybe we’ll have a Disney movie about a parent soon.
What I’m trying to get at is that Disney movies are growing up with the audience that fell in love with them. And part of that is that we can’t just ignore parents– but, after starting to write my own Disney film, I can say with confidence that we will, and here is why:
Fairy tale parents are insane.
We’re adapting The Twelve Dancing Princesses, which only references one parent, the father. Fine, I guess, considering that have 12 children with one woman seems like… well, painful, so the King was probably had a kid or four out of wedlock and we’d want to leave that to a humorous quip, if we bring it up at all.
Fine. However, upon realizing his children are sneaking somewhere every night, the King’s reaction is, “Better put a bounty on my daughters!”
Look, I don’t have kids, but I get the feeling that that is pretty awful parenting. Reconciling that with anything is just… it’s hard. Think about the levels of father/daughter trust failure that need to happen:
1) The daughters need to decide that it’s better to sneak out than ask their father, or else the King would know that dancing was the reason why the shoes were worn down every night, he just wouldn’t know where.
2) The king asks his daughters what’s going on, and they’re so afraid of him that they refuse to tell him, despite the fact that the act of dancing doesn’t seem to impair them in any way.
3) Instead of trying to get to know his children better and earn their trust, the king hires a PI/compels the police to figure this problem out.
4) Upon that failure, the King still decides that random people just living in the kingdom are his best bet. Rather than, you know, talking to his children.
And he’s a king, not a low-functioning alcoholic! To make matters tricker, most of what I’ve written for Luna factors on the king being a competent ruler, as she struggles to find the courage to fill his shoes. This man clearly can not exist… but he does and I have no idea how to write it.
Well, actually, the solution so far has been pretty easy– pull a Dumbledore. Dumbledore doesn’t actually do a whole lot in the early Harry Potter books. He kinda just delivers exposition and ties up loose plot threads. Sure, he’s a powerful wizard, and his knowledge and ability probably would have saved some Hogwarts’ student’s lives, but he’s always just unable to help for whatever reason. The King is our Dumbledore, at least at this point in this draft.
So far (and we’re about 20 pages in) the King has not actually shown up. We see a lot of advisors to the king, but the man himself is kinda like this mythical creature that we never really show. By keeping the king an arms length away from the action– he’ll always be just unable to help, Luna can both idolize her father and her father can be a horrid parent at the same time.
If we never bring attention to it in the narrative, hopefully the slight of hand will work– viewers will remember the king for how the other characters see him, rather than by his actions. Just like early book Dumbledore.
The other option is to highlight the fact that the king is an isolated, shitty parent because the kids were primarily raised by mom. But, we don’t want to point attention there either, because, you know, 1 parent, 12 children. Ouchies.
Also, by writing a blog post about it, I totally kill the magic. I’m a wizard that reveals how the trick works before showing you the trick. Thank god this is just a rough draft.
*This ended up sparking a lively debate with some friends. We’ve so far come up with 6 out of the 52 movies in Disney’s main animated canon where the parents live. I’m also being unfair– many Disney movies feature protagonists that can’t have parents without it getting weird (Wreck-It Ralph, for example). However, in a lot of movies where the parents are around, they get forced away from the action, either because of the plot (Mulan) or because they really subscribe to Laissez-Fare parenting (Peter Pan). In, eh, about half of these films, the plot breaks down if the parents happen to be great parents– Wendy would never want to run away if her father hung out with her more in Peter Pan, and if Herc’s foster parents in Hercules were able to integrate Herc into society better, there goes that movie.
Essentially, successful parenting undoes the basic framing of a Disney movie– going on an adventure to learn a moral, because that moral would have been passed down along with some really awkward Dad joke.**
**However, all of this is kinda moot because 101 Dalmatians exists.