the lion king

(Welcome to The Disney Discourse, a recurring feature where Josh Spiegel discusses the latest in Disney news. He goes deep on everything from the animated classics to the theme parks to live-action franchises. In this edition: why Disney movies shouldn’t be afraid of death.)

Few moments in American cinema stick with people from their youth through adulthood as much as the death of Bambi’s mother midway through the 1942 Disney animated classic Bambi. (Her death was the focal point of one of the truly great entries in Gary Larson’s dearly departed The Far Side comic strip.) This murder, caused by an offscreen hunter, is handled as carefully and artfully as possible. We don’t see anything, not even a hint of the gruesome aftermath, just the echoing sound of shotgun shells. Then, the young Bambi is gruffly told by his largely absent father, the Great Prince of the Forest, that “Your mother can’t be with you anymore” as snow falls over the young deer’s furry face. This is a standout sequence in Disney animation not just because it’s emotional or beautifully rendered. It depicts something that almost never actually happens in the Disney canon: death.

Death is a spectre in Disney animation, but rarely is it visited upon the lead characters of such films. A couple of years ago at The Dissolve, Tasha Robinson wrote about the trope of the Disney Death, where a character looks to be at death’s door before being revived to bring about a happy ending. Everything from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Frozen engages in the trope, in a familiar attempt to build up tension only to diffuse it with a “surprising” return from the dead.

Bambi is one of only a few Disney films to go all the way, genuinely killing a character off in the final section with no hope of return. (The most recent example from the Walt Disney Animation Studios canon is the underrated 2009 film The Princess and the Frog, which unexpectedly kills off a comic-relief sidekick in the third act.) When Bambi’s mom — arguably a second lead for the first half of the film — dies, and his father brings Bambi away from the scene of the murder, it signals the beginning of his true maturation into becoming the next Great Prince of the Forest. Only one Disney film since then has mirrored the 1942 film in depicting a similar coming of age via tragedy: The Lion King.


Killing a Tired Trope

Perhaps because The Lion King — available via a Walt Disney Signature Collection Blu-ray next week in part to be available via digital HD — was created in the 1990s, it was more willing to present the death of a parent on screen, unlike Bambi. Earlier this month, with a surprisingly minimal amount of fanfare, The Lion King was released back into various AMC Theatres locations around the country for a week, in advance of the Signature Collection Blu-ray. Experiencing the death at the center of The Lion King on the small screen is one thing, and can be powerful in its own way. Experiencing that death on the big screen, the way it was intended, is very different. (I’ll note here that my wife and I brought our nearly 3-year old son to the screening, which adds to the emotional impact in ways I can barely elucidate.)

Recently, I rewatched Bambi for an episode of my podcast, allowing me to revisit the iconic film on the eve of its 75th anniversary, which it celebrates this month. Bambi and The Lion King are not, for me, the greatest Disney animated films, but they both represent something that Disney should do more of: they kill off their characters.

I’m not advocating for a bloodbath, and I don’t expect that anything is really going to change for Disney in terms of how they tell their animated stories. As Robinson pointed out in that essay, a lot of Disney animated films indulge in the Disney Death trope, including the Marvel-inspired Big Hero 6, to which the piece was related. If the trope had grown tired enough with audiences over time, the studio’s filmmakers might have responded and shifted tactics, at least to stop utilizing the cliché. Instead, you can find plenty of other films that use the same general fake-out, everything from Hot Fuzz to Guardians of the Galaxy to Furious 7. I agree with Robinson: this is a lazy trope, but it’s clearly not seen as lazy enough among audiences for there to be a notable shift in live-action or animated storytelling.

the lion king mufasa death

The Power of Death

But there should be such a shift. When Mufasa dies in The Lion King, pushed off a cliff by his jealous brother Scar into a stampede of wildebeest, it’s a shocking moment not only for his son Simba, but for everyone in the audience. The film is clearly building to this heartbreak in even lighter moments, such as a brief image of Simba and Mufasa playfully wrestling in the grass one evening, scored to the lush, almost operatic score from Hans Zimmer. But when Mufasa dies, it’s still a major surprise because these things just don’t happen in Disney films. What’s more, the aftermath, where Simba tries to nuzzle underneath the paw of his now-dead father, almost trying to will him back to life, is a gut-punch moment in Disney animation, as plaintive and affecting as anything the studio has ever done. I’m not going to lie: watching my son during this scene, as he became aware of what was happening, and seeing him come close to crying was incredibly rough. Like I said: the emotion is compounded when you watch this as an adult.

The animators and storytellers at Walt Disney Animation Studios, over the years, have done an expert job at creating emotional roller-coasters for audiences, but what happens in Bambi and The Lion King still feels much more singular, even as the latter film is as heavily inspired by the former as it was by Hamlet.

Both films depict a sort of cinematic bildungsroman, as we watch the emotional and physical growth of an anthropomorphized animal in their natural habitat, from birth to their eventual transformation into the ruler of their dominion. Both films’ protagonists (male, of course) are marked viscerally by the death of their closest parent. Both only become rulers after a literal trial by fire — the forest burning down in Bambi, and the adult Simba battling Scar as Pride Rock burns around them in The Lion King. Both are teamed with a pair of comic-relief characters wary of romantic couplings, though in Bambi, Thumper and Flower get “twitterpated,” unlike Timon and Pumbaa in The Lion King. What marks these films as truly unique in the annals of Disney animation isn’t the comic relief or the coming of age or even the fiery climaxes. It’s their parents’ deaths. As mentioned above, The Princess and the Frog kills off Ray the lightning bug in the climax; it’s surprising, but not nearly as potent a loss as that of a parent.

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