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Why Do Parents Die in Disney Movies? The Tragic Truth

I LOVE all things Disney. And while my family and I have sometimes joked about the parents often dying in Disney films, I began to wonder, in all seriousness, why do parents die in Disney movies?

Walt Disney either created or was drawn to stories where 1 or both parents die due to the death of Disney’s mother when Walt was 36. Walt felt personally responsible for his mother’s death, and that impacted the direction the Walt Disney Company has taken with its films ever since.

But there’s a lot more to know about which Disney movies have tragic deaths for parents, and what some of the exceptions are, including the tragic circumstances of Walt’s mother’s death, which we get into below.

So let’s keep reading!

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How many Disney movies have parents who died?

There are at least 16 well-known Disney movies where 1 or both parents die either during the movie or prior to the story’s beginning.

But to be fair to Disney, not all the Disney movies are created solely by Disney. In fact, many are based on fables, fairy tales, or classic stories.

Here are just a few examples of films made by Disney where a parent dies where the actual stories were written by someone else (long before the Disney films):

  • The Little Mermaid – Hans Christian Andersen killed off her mom in the original book
  • Beauty and the Beast – The Disney film is based on the book “a Belle et la Bete”, by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. It was published in France in 1740, and indeed, Belle’s mom is not living in the book either (but she has 3 brothers in the book)
  • Cinderella – To be fair, Disney did kill off Cinderella’s dad who lives in the original book. But her mom dying and her dad marrying the evil step-mother is all in the original novel “Cindrillon” by French author Charles Perrault
  • Bambi – Sadly, Bambi’s mom is also killed by a hunter in the original novel “Bambi, A Life in the Woods”, by Felix Salten
  • Snow White – Snow White, Walt Disney’s first animated film made in 1937, is based on a Grimm Fairy Tale where, living up to their name, the Brother’s Grimm did indeed have her mom die after giving birth to Snow White

But those films aside, here are the best known Disney films where one or both parents die or are dead at the start of the film:

  • Frozen – Both parents die at sea early in the film
  • The Lion King – Simba loses his dad, Mufasa, more or less at the hands of his Uncle Scar shortly into the film
  • Aladdin – Jasmine’s Dad is around, but Aladdin seemingly has no parents in the first 2 films (but his Dad shows up in film 3) and Jasmine’s mother is dead by the time the film starts
  • Pinocchio – I know. Technically he’s a puppet. But he does have Geppetto as his dad with no mom in the picture
  • Dumbo – No real mention of Dumbo’s dad (but then he was delivered by a stork) and mom is imprisoned for most of the film
  • Sword in the Stone – Arthur (before he was King Arthur) is shown to be an orphan. But then to be fair, this one too is based on a book, The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White
  • The Aristocats – Berlioz, Marie, and Toulouse live with their mom Dutchess with no mention of dad
  • Pocahontas – Her mom is dead by the start of the film
  • Lilo & Stitch – Lilo is being raised by her big sister Nani after both parents die in a car wreck
  • Princess and the Frog – Another Disney film based on a Brother’s Grimm fairy tale. Tiana’s dad James is seen briefly in the film but is killed in battle during World War 1
  • Big Hero 6 – Hiro and his brother Tadashi (who dies mid-film) are raised by their Aunt Cass following the death of their parents when Hiro was 3

Honestly, there’s probably more, but those are certainly the best-known Disney films with one or both parents dead.

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Do any Disney movies have both parents?

Yes. There are at least 7 Disney movies where both parents of the main character are alive.

Tangled, the story of Rapunzel features both her mother and father. Where the parental tragedy happens in this story, however, is with the would-be adoptive Mom, Mother Gothel.

Mother Gothel, who stole Rapunzel from her parents as a baby, you guessed it (spoiler alert) dies in the end.

But Tangled is far from the only Disney film featuring both parents. 

The following Disney films also feature both parents:

  • Sleeping Beauty
  • Peter Pan (Wendy and the kid’s parents, not Peter’s. The status of Peter’s parents is unknown although we do know he ran away from home when he was a baby)
  • Brave
  • 101 Dalmations
  • Lady and the Tramp
  • Mulan

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Do they kill Dumbo’s mom?

Dumbo’s mom is not killed in the Disney film Dumbo. She is, however, imprisoned early on in the film, and rarely seen until the end of the film.

She’s caged after fighting back when other circus animals are picking on Dumbo because of his giant ears.

Dumbo gets to visit her in the film. But they can only touch trunks and she isn’t fully visible due to the confines of her cage.

She remains in the circus jail for much of the film but reappears at the end of the film.

Eventually, the circus master figures out Dumbo can fly. And no doubt he figures he can make a lot of money off Dumbo’s unique talent. So he lets mom out of her cage and she gets reunited with Dumbo.

In fact, they even get their own private train car on the circus train.

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Who killed Mowgli’s parents?

Mowgli’s parents were separated from Mowgli during a tiger attack, and are presumed dead in the original Rudyard Kipling novel. But their fate is unclear in the 1967 Disney film. In the 2016 film, however, the story was changed to where Shere Khan, the main tiger in the story, killed Mowgli’s father.

Bear in mind that this story too is NOT an original Disney story.

The Jungle Book film is based on the book of the same name by author Rudyard Kipling (who also wrote a sequel novel in 1894). And the original book itself was actually a collection of Kipling’s short stories which were first published in magazines.

In the film, as in the book, Mowgli is found orphaned in the jungle in a basket, presumably abandoned intentionally. He is then raised by wolves, although in the best-known version, Disney’s 1967’s animated classic, he spends the majority of the film with his pal Baloo the bear.

The original Kipling stories flesh out his origin a bit more by saying that he was lost in the jungles in India during a tiger attack.

So presumably Mowgli’s parents were killed by tigers.

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How did Walt Disney’s parents die?

Walt Disney’s mother Flora died from a gas leak in a home Walt and his brother Roy recently purchased for their parents. Walt’s father Elias died approximately 3 years later of natural causes.

Walt’s parents died separately, but early in Walt’s life. Walt was just shy of 37 when his mother passed away in 1938. And he was 39 when his dad passed away in 1941.

Walt was born in 1901 in Chicago where he lived with his parents and 3 brothers and 1 sister. Disney’s parents were Elias and Flora Disney. 

How his mother died really is the key to why parental death plays such a large role in most Disney movies.

After Walt’s success with Snow White in 1937, Walt, along with his brother Roy, bought his parents a home in Hollywood. The home was close to the Disney studios in Burbank.

Within a month of moving in, Flora complained to Walt she was having issues with the gas furnace.  Repair people came out, but apparently did not adequately fix the issue as a few days later a housekeeper found both Flora and Elias unconscious inside the house.

The housekeeper managed to pull them to the front lawn of the house, but while Elias did recover in the hospital, Walt’s mother Flora was pronounced dead.

Flora died of asphyxiation from the gas leak.

Because Walt had bought her the home and it was Disney repair people who had poorly attempted to fix the problem, Walt felt complete responsibility for his mother’s death.

Disney never spoke of the incident or his mother’s death, but there’s no denying its lasting impact on his films and his directives for the studio after his passing.

Walt’s father passed away from natural causes, but no doubt impacted by his wife’s death almost 3 years earlier. Elias was 82 when he died.

Final Thoughts

In this article, we took a quick look at something that people have snickered about for years; Disney movies and parents dying.

After all, whether we’re talking Frozen, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Aladin, Beauty, and the Beast, or a host of others, there’s no denying that Disney loves a good tragedy to set up their films.

So here, we examined that trend and explored some of the reasons behind the death, including the real tragedy that befell Walt Disney’s own parents.

Jeff Campbell