My “Disney/Death and being a Dad” Dilemma

Disclaimer: Joe V. is one of our regular readers and supporters of the site. Joe reached out to us with an idea he had about Death and Disney and wanted to share it with us and we are sharing it with you. We think the timing of this post is great with Pixar’s Onward coming out this weekend.

Have any conversation about Disney movies and it won’t take too long for someone to bring up a comment along the line of “Disney must be obsessed with death”, “- – – – was a great movie, but why did so and so have to die”, or “Walt Disney must have had a horrible childhood”.  Okay, obsession may go a little too far and It’s not my job or place to psychoanalyze Walt. Come to think of it there was a movie a few years back that sort of did that.  Instead, I’m here to speak about my own experiences with Disney movies and how I have struggled with them as I became a father.

Speaking of that conversation I previously mentioned earlier, four movies are usually always sure to enter the mix: “Bambi”, “Land Before Time”, “Old Yeller” and “Lion King”.  I saw the first three when I was little.  I remember Bambi’s mom died…. Not sure how.  I remember being sad, but what I remember the most was Bambi and Thumper’s friendship.  I remembered loving the dinosaurs of Land Before Time was so fun and colorful and that I liked the movie.  I think the mom died in there or was it the father?  Like any dad of young the memory starts to go.  I saw Old Yeller, don’t remember it affecting me.  Lion King, I saw as an adult.  It was sad to see Mustapha die and I may have shed a tear in the theatre.  I remember feeling anger and feeling uncomfortable.  I thought, “gees! Disney”.  His death was kind of inferred – but why have Simba witness his dying corpse and try to snuggle with him only to have that cut short by Scar laying the guilt trip on the poor cub. Brutal Man!

It’s important to note that I am no stranger to Death.  I Unfortunately lost my mother when I was 14 years old.  It was sudden and unexpected.  I learned quickly in life how finite death is.  Since then I lost a brother rather all of a sudden and watched a sister slowly lose her battle with cancer.  I now work in a profession that entails me helping the sick, prevent some from dying, and I, unfortunately, have witnessed plenty of situations where our efforts at work were unsuccessful in doing so or even worse – a decision is made that the person is “better off” or allowed to “move on” so to say.   Not starting a pity party here.  I am who I am today because of my past.  I love who I am and love my job and find it very rewarding to help others in need.

My first child was born in 2013 and my second in 2016.  Both are girls.  One of my favorite memories is watching cartoons and kid shows with them.  Curious George, Doc McStuffins, Sesame Street, you name it.  It was great seeing their reactions, laughter, and excitement as they watched the shows.  But as they got older, their interests changed and their brains got bigger along with their curiosity.  They (mainly the older one) started noticing characters facial expressions, started asking “why (are) they making that face?”, “Are they mad?”, “Why are they mad?”. Then I’d notice roughhousing and or wildness – “kids just being kids” or was the sword fight in Peter Pan too exciting or violent?  More and more I started second-guessing and or questioning what they watched.  In the back of my mind, I recall the psychology study where the child was shown a violent cartoon and then put in a room with a blow-up clown and he proceeded to lay the smackdown on the clown.  I found myself fast-forwarding through parts of violence, death, and uncomfortable parts.  I’d distract them to divert their attention.  TV time wasn’t a relaxing time anymore – it became a time of stress and anticipation.  Is this too scary?  Is this too Violent? Am I overreacting? But their friends watch this? Etc.

One day my wife picked up my oldest from 4K.  My daughter told her a story that went something like this: “Mom, so and so’s grandpa went up north…. He went waaaaay up North… like he won’t be coming back…He got “the dead”.  This is extra funny because “going up North” is a regular phrase here in Wisconsin because many people have weekend/summer cottages Up North so to say.   My wife had to try to explain to her what death is – as best as you can to a 4 yr old.  What followed was days and weeks of “death” coming up way more than I wanted it to for what felt like weeks.  Watching a show- Is that guy going to die?.  Playing around she’d just throw herself down on the ground and let it be known that she is now dead as she sticks her tongue out.  How do you explain to a child that death is a normal part of life but acting it out in play is inappropriate?  The joys of being a parent.

Things got worse quick.  We took a visit to Chicago where that same daughter saw a set of three memorial candles my sister had made for my Mother, Brother, and Sister that had past.  They even had their pictures on it.  She had asked my wife who they were and my wife had to explain who they were and that they’re not here anymore.  I now have dodged the subject with my daughter twice.  The jokes about death continued.  But this is kids being kids right?

Shortly around this time, Coco came to Netflix.  I had watched it without my family for the first viewing and cried as everyone else did.  My kids kept seeing it on Netflix and I kept avoiding it- picking something else.  One day when my oldest was sick and you do nothing but snuggle on the couch and watch tv- I let her watch it.  What followed was an experience I’ll always cherish.  I got to fully enjoy the movie, explain the culture, and traditions relayed in the movie.  We both cried tears of sorrow towards the end and shared tears of hope and joy as we cheered for the grandma to remember and celebrated when she finally did.  The lessons we both took from that movie is that family is important, that people do die, but it is up to use to share their stories and proudly display their pictures- this way they live forever.

In October of 2019, our family dog Wrigley took a turn for the worse.  He started losing weight, stopped eating, making horrible breathing sounds.   Kids didn’t really notice and would still jump on him and pull his tail.  We’d have to constantly correct them sometimes we’d end up yelling.  While my wife and I were trying to come to terms with what was coming – we had to also prepare the girls for what was to come.  To help make light of the situation and to take a much-needed family trip we booked a trip to Disneyland in California for late fall.  Wrigley worsened and I secretly hoped he’d go in his sleep and before our trip.  That didn’t happen.  Shortly before our trip, we found out just how sick Wrigley was and that the outlook wasn’t good at all.  My wife and I made an excruciating decision to let Wrigley go while his quality of life was still decent.  A copy of All Dogs Go to Heaven was purchased for us.  I started it with my children and turned it off shortly after the main character “escapes” his ascent into heaven and goes back to Earth.  Don’t want to give my kids any mixed signals on Death.

We made our trip to Disneyland and it was a blast to be remembered always.  We stumbled upon a Coco exhibit where you could offer up a prayer card and pay homage to your loved ones.  How cool is this?  I fought back tears as my oldest daughter wrote her late dog’s name down.  Very wonderful to see my brother and sister put names down on paper too and take part in the exhibit.

My girls love Frozen as most young girls do.  I wasn’t really impressed with the first one.  I told myself parents did not have to die, Elsa was treated like a freak and locked up, Anna grew up thinking her sister wanted nothing to do with her, and what the heck were the troll things.  My girls loved it.  I stopped fast-forwarding during the parent’s death scene and I stopped “putting it out there” that maybe they just disappeared.  We went with a big group of neighborhood friends to see Frozen 2 opening weekend.  I enjoyed every bit of it.  Saw it three times since and love it, even more, each time.  Same characters a lot of the same character arcs…. But why did I?  This Frozen dealt with death too and more importantly a failed opportunity to undo the death of the parents in the first one.  Something I secretly hope they’d do.

In the previews, prior to Frozen2, there was a sneak peek of Onward… Disney/Pixar’s upcoming big release.   The trailer is roughly about a family who lost their father at an early age and one of the children’s monumental birthday he finds a spell that could bring their father back for one day.  What kind of message is this sending to children?  To top it off, they fail at their attempt and only bring back half of him.  I’m sure by the end they succeed but how confusing is this for a child.  My first thought was no way am I bringing my children to see that.  Like I said we saw Frozen 2 more times at the theatre and saw the Onward preview every time and its everywhere on television.  The kids can’t wait to go see it…. I think I’ve come around and really want to see it too.  So why the change of heart?

Death is a fact of life!   Everything dies.  Sometimes people die suddenly, sometimes it’s drawn out, sometimes it can’t come soon enough one almost wishes for it.  Death by definition is dead to the physical.  Is Disney obsessed with the subject, I think not.  They can make millions of dollars on other topics and believe me they have.  All the classic Disney films deal with some sort of loss but the subject of death is the end-all-be-all.  The ultimate nail in the coffin…. the straw that breaks the camels back.  No one wants to talk about death, heck most people don’t want to talk about their feelings but as a society, we’re quick to listen to gossip of other people’s failure, quick to read a popular book of someone’s personal struggle, or immerse ourselves in a movie of an underdogs rise to stardom.  That’s the beauty of the arts.  We can experience something without having to go through it ourselves or we can help make sense of the situation by putting ourselves in other people’s shoes.

There’s a line from the 2019’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor movie that goes something along the lines “If you feel it and everyone feels it then it’s worth talking about”.  People race to the theatre to see war movies, space adventures, and gangster mafia movies.   More often then not if a movie has to deal with death or the possibility of death people shy away from it.  They’ll say stuff like “That looks too depressing”, “Why do I want to cry for 2 hours”, “My life is sad enough”.  I understand those comments to a certain extent but if you could race to watch a movie full of adrenaline, romance, and excitement…. What about the feelings of sorrow, guilt, and sadness?  These feelings are a part of life and sometimes even though we’d rather not experience them by choosing a movie that deals with them we should.  We owe it to ourselves and others.

I’ve come to terms with Disney and Death going hand in hand.  Sure, sometimes I’m cautious but I have to think am I sheltering my children from these movies and subjects or am I sheltering myself from talking to them about it.  Life can sometimes come down to missed opportunities.  My wife and I are all my children have.  I can’t rely on school and tv to teach my children about life and its lessons.  It’s my responsibility to give my children the best foundation they can have to go onward in this world.  There’s an old saying “ the only sure thing in life is Death”.  When I was young death just happened.   It was sad but not scary.  When I had kids that all changed, now I had one then two little ones to protect.   It took me a while, but I’ve learned that you can only shield and or protect your children so much before you start to hinder them.  Part of raising a child is teaching them to be aware of their emotions, to express them, and how to cope with them.  Emotions are a fact of life including all the emotions surrounding death.

Death doesn’t necessarily have to be the death of a person or an animal.  It can be equated to the end of a relationship, the last day of a job, any point of loss that leads to the road of uncertainty….that is where the adventure begins.  That is why Death makes its way into great movies – it’s what comes next that counts….the world is wide open and the possibilities are endless.  So when two young girls lose their parents in a tragic boat accident, When a baby dinosaur loses his mother.  When the cutest couple keeps putting off the adventure of a lifetime only to have one of them die.  All horrific scenarios, but all have happened and will happen again in some way shape or form.  Death changes people whether they like it or not.  Plans change, dreams end, hope is gone….. but life still goes on.  How does someone move on, where do they find the courage and encouragement to face another day.  Sooner or later they have to take that next step and to quote anna they must “do the next right thing”.  When one door closes another one opens.

In a few days, I’ll most likely be at the theatres with my family watching Onward.  I’m sure I really enjoy it.  Most importantly I want to be there “in the moment” with my kids.   Experiencing the movie as it was made too.  I look forward to freely feeling all the emotions that come my way…. And then sitting down with them after and talking about the movie and the lessons we’ve learned.  It’s only a dilemma if I make it one.

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