Death in Disney Movies: Making the Most of Teachable Movie Moments

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Eleanor Haley

I must caution you this post contains minor spoilers.

If you have children, you've probably seen Disney’s latest princess flick Frozen. In my household, we've seen it too many times to count. I generally dislike sitting through the same movie more than once, but I must admit this one is kind of delightful. Short enough, good soundtrack, decent humor, gorgeous animation. What the heck, give me a tub of buttery popcorn and I’m in!

As we all know, Disney fairy tales tend to follow a certain recipe and Frozen is no different: one handsome prince + a doe eyed princess (times two this time around) + a pinch of too-adult-for-the-kids humor + a dab of peril + a simmer until you achieve happily ever after = movie magic.

parents in frozen

About fifteen minutes into the movie, we see that Frozen also calls for another common theme (spoiler alert: death) when the princesses' father and mother are killed in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment wrapped up in the later 1 minute and 30 seconds of what starts out as one of the film's sweetest songs.

First, we see a boat carrying the King and Queen of Arendelle get sucked into a stormy sea. Then, we flash to an image of servants covering their portrait, to an image of their daughter Anna standing at what appears to be a funeral, and to Anna and her sister sad and alone. The most overt reference to what happened was when Anna says to her sister Elsa, ‘We only have each other.’ That’s it.

As an adult, it took ME about 30 seconds to realize what happened and then another 30 seconds to contemplate how to quickly explain their death to my kids who were now looking at me all like, “Why are the pretty girls sad?”  

With only 30 seconds to whisper, “THEIR MOMMY AND DADDY DIED” before the movie flashes forward a few years to a much happier and non-griefy time, I was left thinking, “Gee I hope their death wasn't an integral part of the plot because there’s no way my kids understand what just happened.” Turns out it was semi-relevant to the plot, but the girls didn't seem phased. I think kids are just used to the inexplicable absence of adult supervision in television and movies.

Honestly, vague references to death are kind of common practice with children's movies, so if my kids don’t get too hung up on it, I often just let it go. I probably could have glossed over this instance, but after our first encounter with Frozen, I knew our relationship with the movie would be ongoing, so I might as well gauge their understanding of what happened.

The concept of death is not new to my children, so when I told them in the theater that the parents ‘died’ they vaguely understood the implications. The part they found most confusing is the ‘how.’ The movie didn’t make their cause of death obvious (to a child at least), and it would never have occurred to my kids that people die in ships at sea leaving their young adult children all alone. In subsequent viewings of this scene, the girls have watched with greater understanding and asked additional questions about the funeral and why the parents' portrait was being covered, thus building on their understanding of what happens after someone dies.

I’m not sure I would go so far as to say this was definitively a ‘teachable moment.’ In this instance, Disney kind of leaves it up to you and, depending on the child’s age and awareness, you may not feel the need to talk about it. If you do, you may want to keep the following tips in mind. In fact, it may not hurt to keep these tips in your back pocket when watching any movie with a child. Not every movie warrants a conversation, but most children's movies have a conflict and a moral lesson in there somewhere.

  1. Observe how the child responds to what they’re watching.
  2. Ask questions about their understanding of what happened.
  3. Fill in the blanks about what happened with clear and honest responses, even if that means giving them a little more information than they asked for or introducing new words or concepts. Don’t lie or skirt the truth, as this often leads to more confusion(For example: It would have been easy for me to avoid the dreaded ‘d’ word by telling the kids that the King and Queen went on a trip and never came back... But then the message they are left with is that sometimes parents go away on trips and never return to their children. That’s not much better!)
  4. Discuss how they think the characters are probably feeling. Discuss times they have felt this way.
  5. If necessary, discuss the events of the movie in the context of their life. For example, if something hits particularly close to home, address how it is and is not the same.

The instances of death in Disney movies are abundant, but only in a select few is it so integral to the plot that a parent/child discussion is absolutely warranted. Here are the three we've recently discussed in my household. Feel free to share any additional examples (Disney or non-Disney) in the comments below.

Bambi: The Death of Bambi's Mother

Ugh... this scene gives me a pit in my stomach. Most of us have seen it: When Bambi and his mom hear hunters nearby, they make a run for the thicket. But when they get there, Bambi finds himself alone. He walks through the snowy woods calling for his mother until a buck arrives and tells him "Your mother can't be with you anymore."  It's brutal.

Things you may want to discuss with your child:  

  • Gauge whether they understand what happened to Bambi's mother.  
  • Ask: Do you understand why his mother can't be with him anymore?  
  • Discuss how Bambi might be feeling.  
  • Discuss who might be able to take care of Bambi now.  
  • Discuss adults in their own lives who sometimes help take care of them.  

Lion King: The Death of Mufasa (Simba's Dad)

In this clip, Mufasa is killed by his evil brother Scar while trying to save his son Simba. When Simba can't wake his father, he first cries for help and then, finding they are all alone, tearfully climbs into his father's lifeless arms. There's really no way around this scene, it's extremely integral to the movie.

Things you might want to discuss with your child:

  • Gauge their understanding of what happened to Mufasa.  
  • Discuss why Simba was not able to wake him.  
  • Explain how death is different from sleeping and that, when someone dies, they can not wake up.
  • Discuss how they think Simba feels.  

After this scene, Simba—thinking he's responsible for his father's death—runs away and never returns out of shame and guilt. Children, especially young children around the age of four, often think they are responsible for negative events in their life like death and divorce.  

  • Ask the child why they think Simba runs away.
  • Help to clarify why Simba is not responsible for the death of his father.

Up: Carl and Ellie's Story

I defy you to watch Ellie and Carl's love story and not cry. I was so not prepared for this scene the first time I watched it. My daughter was still young at the time and I remember her being perplexed by my emotional state. All I could say was, "It's just so sad!"

Anyway, a lot of ground is covered in these four-and-a-half minutes (a lifetime in fact). We see Ellie's grief after her baby dies during pregnancy. Towards the end, we see Carl's grief after Ellie dies from terminal illness. I'm going to label this clip NSFW because no one wants to let their coworkers see them cry.

Things you might want to discuss with your child:

  • Ask them if they have any questions about what happened to Ellie or Carl.  
  • Depending on their age, they may not have picked up on the death of the baby. If they are curious but can't make sense of why Ellie and Carl were preparing for a baby that never came, be honest and explain what happened.
  • Discuss Ellie's illness. If they seem concerned, reassure them about the differences between illness like the flu and terminal illness.
  • Discuss how Carl probably feels.  
  • Discuss why they think Ellie made the scrapbook for Carl.  
  • Discuss why they think Carl finally takes the trip that he and Ellie had been saving for.

Sometimes we sit at the kids' table and sometimes we sit with the grown-ups'.  There's something for everyone so don't forget to subscribe!

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5 Comments on "Death in Disney Movies: Making the Most of Teachable Movie Moments"

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  1. 7hAndrea  March 25, 2022 at 12:09 pm Reply

    It is a very interesting topic. But to be honest even me as an adult when I used to watch the scenes with death I never realized deeply the effects of grieving and the brutal shock to loose someone you love. You watch the movie, feel sad and then you forget and don’t dwell if that circumstance would happen to you and what you would have gone through. Only when my sister passed away I did understand the meaning of death. So unless you fully explain to children how grief works and how life is impacted forever by that event, they will not remember about that scene again. I wish I would have known but our culture avoid as much as possible to face this reality and as a result it is much harder to face it when it knocks our door suddenly.

  2. Jamey  May 7, 2021 at 1:51 am Reply

    Yes there are many movies and Disney where at least if not both parents die although there is a Disney movie that they actually do kill a child subtle but it happened in that movie is hocus-pocus this movie disturbs me because of this fact

  3. Sarah Hasegawa  January 18, 2014 at 6:39 pm Reply

    We used to fast-forward the scene where Nemo’s mom gets eaten. Yikes!

  4. Kiri (The Angel Zoe Kindness Project)  January 15, 2014 at 1:24 pm Reply

    Hmmm, my daughter didn’t like movies even where the character she identified with was even separated from their family. She refused to watch the rest of Ratatouille for this reason. At the end of The Simpson’s Movie, when Lisa goes off with her boyfriend she said “Why isn’t she with her mother?”
    And why, when there is a dead mother is there always an evil stepmother or aunt e.g The Twelve Dancing Princesses?

    • Eleanor  January 21, 2014 at 11:19 am Reply

      Kiri, my daughters have also had a difficult time understanding families being separated. I guess it’s just so contrary to what they know and expect from the world.

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