I can still recall watching Finding Nemo for the first time with my sensitive middle child. He kept asking, “What happened to Nemo’s mom? What happened to his big family?” It was as if the image of that vicious barracuda eating Nemo’s family was so far beyond his capacity for understanding.
However, Nemo isn’t the only beloved cartoon character to be jarringly left without an important family member. The list includes Simba from The Lion King, Tarzan, Snow White, and of course, Elsa and Anna from Frozen. In fact, it’s hard to think of any classic animated movie that doesn't feature the death of a main character's loved one.
Ian Colman, a mental health epidemiologist from the University of Ottawa, recently conducted a study to discover if there's more violence in kids flicks compared to adult features. You may not be surprised to learn that animated movies geared toward a younger audience feature more characters with an increased risk of death than films for adults. The study, called “Cartoons Kill,” states that Finding Nemo depicts the fastest occurring onscreen deaths in any film—at a mere four minutes and three seconds into the Pixar classic, Nemo's mother and all his unborn siblings die. The study also found that parents of main characters are five times more likely to die in an animated feature than in commercial films aimed at adults. In general, murder is two-and-a-half times more likely to happen in kids’ animated movies. So there goes the whole theory of shielding kids from violence in popular culture. The “Cartoons Kill” study was published in the prestigious British Medical Journal.
The researchers studied 45 of the highest-grossing kids’ animated films, from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to last year’s Frozen, and compared them to 90 of the top-grossing adult dramas of the same time period. They found that two-thirds of the kids’ movies featured the death of a main character, while only half of the films for adults did. The study concluded that “rather than being the innocuous form of entertainment they are assumed to be, children’s animated films are rife with on-screen death and murder.” The characters in kids’ movies often die by animal attacks and falls, whereas the weapons of choice are guns and motor vehicles in adult movies.
But is all this cartoon violence harming our kids?
The researchers are ambiguous on that point, claiming they didn’t do research on kids after they'd watched the movies and admit that exposure to cartoon violence may have both positive and negative outcomes. The theme of death has been a part of children’s literature since the days of the Brothers Grimm. We can’t pretend that kids don’t know about death. Perhaps seeing it on screen helps them process and deal with this fact of life. However, that doesn’t mean every child deals with violence and fear in the same way. My mother still talks about the trauma she experienced after Bambi’s mom was killed by unseen hunters. She was a child during the Second World War, and the potential to lose a parent was a very real fear. She has never managed to shake that memory.
The authors of the study believe their research proves that kids’ films should not be watched in a vacuum. Their advice is that parents "might consider watching such movies alongside their children, in the event that the children need emotional support after witnessing the inevitable horrors that will unfold.”
I feel the study is a good reminder that parenting doesn’t stop when the movie comes on. And maybe, just maybe, we can expect some animated movies in the near future that have an engaging plot without featuring death as a major plot point.
Does the amount of deaths featured in animated movies bother your kids... or you?