Watching children’s animated films like Bambi, Frozen or the Lion King, can help adults and children to come to terms with death, according to new research.
The main characters in Disney and Pixar animated films are more than twice as likely to die than in dramas aimed at adults.
This presents opportunities for parents to discuss end of life issues with children – and confront their own fears, say psychologists.
Professor Kelly Tenzek, of the University at Buffalo, said: ‘These films can be used as conversation starters for difficult and what are oftentimes taboo topics like death and dying.
Deaths occur in Disney movies more often than in adult dramas. They are often harrowing, such as when Mustafa’s brother Scar threw him to his death in The Lion King (pictured)
Tragic: Viewers watch the beloved character fall to his death early on in the movie
Devastated: A young Simba finds his dead father in one of the most famous Disney scenes ever
‘These are important conversations to have with children, but waiting until the end of life is way too late and can lead to a poor end-of-life experience.’
Death is a running theme in the genre ranging from Bambi’s mother to Mufasa from The Lion King and Elsa and Anna’s parents in Frozen.
Confronting it with children early allows the dialogue to continue and develop throughout their lives.
Prof Tenzek, who specializes in end of life communication, said killings in these films can actually help children relate to death and understand it in ways that otherwise might be very challenging for them.
She said: ‘We believe Disney and Pixar films are popular and accessible for children and adults so a difficult conversation can begin in a less threatening way earlier in life.’
In The Good Dinosaur, little Arlo’s dad is dramatically washed away by a raging river while in Finding Nemo the title character’s mother is eaten by a barracuda.
In Frozen, Elsa and Anna’s parents are lost at sea. Arguably, the most heartbreaking death of an animated character is in Bambi, when a shotgun blast kills the little deer’s mother.
Prof Tenzek and co-author Prof Bonnie Nickels, a visiting lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology, New York, analyzed 57 Disney and Pixar movies in which 71 character deaths occurred.
The study published in Omega-Journal of Death and Dying found four themes emerged, each of which can serve as a platform for adults to discuss end-of-life issues with children.
They used categories from previous research on deaths in 10 Disney and Pixar films that distinguished the character’s status, such as antagonist or protagonist, the cause of death and whether it was presented on film or implied.
They also included the reactions of other characters and whether the death, within the context of the plot, was permanent or a reversible, fantasy occurrence.
With that template and their expanded list of 57 films, the latest analysis published in Omega-Journal of Death and Dying yielded four general opportunities, or themes, on which to base an end-of-life discussion.
Explained Prof Tenzek: ‘First, some of the portrayals of death are unrealistic, such as when the character returns or returns in an altered form. But this is a chance for a child to better understand the difference between fiction and real life.’
She says managing the end of life, or the emotional response to death, could be helpful for children and adults.
She said: ‘How the characters portray their responses to dying can help children understand the nature of expressing emotion.
Most harrowing Disney death? The loss of Bambi’s mother to a shotgun in the forest is one of the most often-cited Disney tragedies. Researchers found this movie was particularly good at triggering thoughts and conversations about grief and end of life
‘Big Hero 6 (2014) and Inside Out (2015) specifically address emotional responses to death and dying which were not present in earlier films.’
The protagonist in Big Hero 6 loses his brother in an explosion. In Inside Out, a character sacrifices himself by jumping off a weight saddled wagon to save a girl.
The third and fourth themes dealing with intentions to kill and transformation and spiritual connection, with its moral sub theme, are more complex, said the researchers.
Although religious and spiritual content are not always overly present, Disney and Pixar films can still serve as opportunities to discuss beliefs and end of life, said Prof Tenzek.
She said: ‘We acknowledge a child’s psychological development is important when considering these discussions. It’s not our intent to have these conversations with a three-year-old, but as children mature, then the films fit naturally into that growth.’
She said many of the possible benefits extend from parents’ power to engage children. The films can be a tool to help explain the difficult end of life process and help them make connections that lead to better understanding.
Added Prof Tenzek: ‘I teach end of life communication. My goal is to educate and help people become more comfortable with the end of life. One way to do that is through these films.’