In the beginning of the twentieth century, psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung developed what would become known as the father complex. Freud wrote, “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.” And yet he also wrote that a bitterness between his male patients and their fathers was at the root of the resistance towards his treatments and their recovery. Carl Jung veered from Freud’s doctrine in believing women to be just as influenced by their paternal relationships as men. The two agreed, however, that based on a person’s relationship to their father, unconscious impulses are born that can either be positive-seeking out father figures- or negative-rejecting father figures. The negative impulse that motivates a person to reject or be suspicious of their father is what I will be focusing on, as a general disappointment with one’s father is a popular theme shown again and again in art. We see it consistently in literature, television, song, painting, and film as a timeless and universal motif, but I do not believe that any work or body of work has represented the negative father complex as demonstrably as the films of Walt Disney Studios; specifically their animated features.
Nobody works more completely in archetypes than Disney which is why their films remain so vivid in the audience’s mind years or even decades after. Although it is never explicit, Disney fathers are almost always unreliable. This detail may manifest itself differently from film to film, but in almost seventy years of feature length output, it would be a stretch to name more than a couple of fathers in the official Disney canon that you could put your faith in. In these Disney animated films, the fathers fall in to one of three categories: the absent father, the incompetent father, or the unaccepting father.
The most prevalent type of father in Disney films, the idea of the absent father. actually developed much later after the death of Freud and Jung. Another term associated with it is the switched off father, and it refers to a father who, either through choice or incident, is not around for the formative years of his child and our protagonist’s life.
We were introduced to this type from the very beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937). As the studio’s first feature length picture, this film set the standard for all the films to come. A certain model of storytelling can be found that has become a hallmark of the Disney brand: princess, romance, music, comedy, animals, and colorful animation. Just as much a part of that brand, if not as promotable, is the absence of the father. Snow White makes no reference to the father whatsoever. From the opening frame we are informed that she has a wicked stepmother, the queen of all the land, who vainly demotes her from their home, but no mention of her father the king at all. I assume, like Cinderella, her father must have died, thus unable to raise her and protect her from the queen’s superficial tyranny. I know I never batted an eye when watching this film as a kid over what happened to the father. I rolled along with the story. But is it just a matter of being programmed to move on from what’s not there- an invisible king is not as interesting as seven colorful dwarves and musically gifted animals- or is it something more?
While Snow White was a massive hit and jumpstarted the empire that is Walt Disney, it was not for another thirteen years or so that the studio had another hit. They accomplished this company saving feet by returning to the princess model in Cinderella (1950). That also meant returning to the absent father that leaves the protagonist to fend for herself. We know from other incarnations of the Cinderella story that the father dies in her youth which leaves her in the tortured care of another wicked step-mother. This step-mother may not be a queen but still lords over the manor (and Cinderella’s inheritance) every bit the despot. Now, whether the archetype existed before or not, we see in Disney films certain core ideas being cultivated. The replacement mother and the switched off father. A burgeoning focus in psychoanalysis has been devoted to how the latter leads to another term, father hunger, in real life. Dr. Margo Maine first introduced the idea in her book, Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, and Food, explaining how a deprivation of paternal support can lead to a lack of self-confidence and an unhealthy need for approval. She writes, “It is time to focus on the positive and crucial role that fathers can play in their daughters emerging identity and self-esteem. There is no substitute for a father’s love. Similarly there may be nothing worse than being deprived of or feeling uncertain about it.” Her book centers around how that need for approval leads to ineffective relationships and eating disorders. Certainly we do not see these symptoms in Snow White or Cinderella, so what are we to conclude from their father’s absence? Is it important to our fairy tales that the protagonists not have an initial support system to lean on? I doubt Disney was saying fathers are not important, but in leaving them so utterly far from the frame and out of the picture, we can understand Dr. Maine’s concerns when she writes, “Our culture has influenced family functions by perpetuating myths that convey minimal importance to the father’s role in the family , particularly in raising daughters.” Before moving on, it is important to note that, unlike Snow White, we do have a father in the picture though it is not Cinderella’s father. We get the Prince’s father, the Grand Duke who happens to be an important character. In him, we see a prime example of the buffoonish father used for comic relief; a squat man with a short temper. We will come back to him later when talking about the incompetent father type in Disney features.
Skipping many decades ahead, we arrive at, what I believe is the first Disney film with a completely absent father that features consequences, and that is Lilo and Stitch (2002). It is an odd movie in many ways, feeling more like an independent film than a major Disney release, and one reason for that is its intimacy over grand spectacle. Lilo, a pre-teen Hawaiian girl, is essentially an orphan. I cannot recall if the movie mentions what happened to the parents, but we see Lilo’s older sister struggling to raise her. Lilo is angry, mistrustful, and disobedient as a result of losing her family. One poignant scene in the movie, when Stitch her alien friend/ pet dog decides to leave, she responds, “Ohana” means “family.” “Family” means “no one gets left behind. But if you want to leave, you can. I’ll remember you though. I remember everyone that leaves,” as she looks at a picture of her dead parents. It somehow feels weird when a Disney character acknowledges missing a parent. She evokes the term “ohana” a number of times in the film, evoking her father with each use. Despite evidence that she had a loving relationship with her father- evidence we did not have in say, Snow White- and despite having a loving sister instead of an evil step-mother, Lilo is still ultimately left without a dependable male figure to lean on as she moves through adolescence.
Fast forward to 2013, and we have our most recent example of the princess model in Frozen. We have a brief glimpse at the cause of death for the parents as they set sail and a storm wages, but otherwise this film is a return to the Snow White and Cinderella model of non-important parental characters. I bring this film up to not only illustrate how the practice of absent fathers still exists, or how it still can be successful in telling an enormously profitable story (the movie earned over a billion dollars), but to point out how for the protagonist, Anna, the relationship between her and her sister, Elsa, is more important than her relationship between her and her parents. Again, this is not explicit nor is it something the character feels, but in terms of the story told, the audience is obviously invested in the relationship between the sisters, and more or less forgets about the parents.
Shifting over to male protagonists, there seems to be a difference in the father-child dynamic. There seems to be a difference in how we are meant to react to the father’s absence. Going back and starting with Bambi (1942), we see the young impressionable title character raised primarily by his ill-fated mother. His father however is not completely irrelevant as many absent fathers have been in Disney movies. He is depicted as a grand, authoritative presence that moves in and out of the picture. He is similar to the working father. The dad that cannot consistently be there for the son like he wants to because he has a very important job. In Bambi, the father’s job is Great Prince of the forest. He protects all the woodland creatures. We see a certain conditioning in the female centered Disney movies towards fathers being irrelevant. Beginning with Bambi, we see male centered pictures depicting the father as someone to aspire to if still absent from much of his life. If you recall, Bambi ends up as a father himself and taking his father’s place as Great Prince of the forest. Echoes of the Oedipus complex can be determined if you do not mind looking. Sigmund Freud ascribed ambivalent attitudes of a son towards his father to the Oedipus complex which becomes a desire for the son to take his father’s place.
Disney’s Hercules (1997) continued the theme of absent father as daunting figure by focusing on the son of Zeus, God of all gods. Hercules through a scheme of Hades is stolen from his heavenly home as a baby and relegated to mortality and a life as a commoner. Hercules is given loving surrogate parents which separates him from many of his fellow Disney protagonists, but the film’s main theme is of self-identity. He loves the parents who raised him, but he feels lost not knowing who he is or where he belongs. In a lot of ways he represents a lot of the symptoms Dr. Maine writes about in her female subjects, in that he is constantly seeking approval and acceptance from his father Zeus. His father through most of the movie towers over him in marble statue, and Hercules thinks that all he wants is to be on the same sphere as his father.
Finally for our absent fathers, we arrive at the mother of all familial struggles in Disney animation with The Lion King (1994). Drawing inspiration from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Lion King follows Simba from birth to his ascension to king and the birth of his own son; similar to Bambi. Like the previous two examples of male protagonists, Simba’s father is a gargantuan presence, with shoes no man or beast could hope to fill. Simba wants to be like his father. Who wouldn’t want to be the great Mufasa? You might reasonably be thinking that Simba’s dad was not absent. He was very much a part of his upbringing and moral maturation, but Mufasa like countless Disney fathers before him, dies. Simba cannot rely on him because he is dead. He is part of the circle of life that he explains to his son. The father complex is very clearly expressed in this film, where Simba grows up believing he is the cause of his father’s death. He brags to his best friend and future wife, Nala, that he will someday be king of Pride rock. He wants to be king. He wants to take his father’s place, not in the same way his Uncle Scar does, but nonetheless, and so we see the Oedipus complex realized in Simba’s mind. He has no choice but to flee and escape in the idle way of life of Timon and Pumba. Sigmund Freud believed the father and son represented the id and the ego, each contradictory forces and in the Oedipus complex, the father must be destroyed in order for the pleasure principle to materialize. This idea is of course a stretch to apply to The Lion King, but I would just like to point out the sequence of events that has the horribly sad death of Mufasa lead into the hedonistic “hakuna matata.” Anyways, there is the seminal scene where Simba reaches some sort of ghost of his father and he cries out, “Don’t leave me.” This points to the fear Freud talks about that is innate of the absent father.
Going back to the Prince’s father in Cinderella, you will remember him as a loveable but at the same time blustering figure, if your remember him at all. He leads into the second type of father figure which is the incompetent father. I expand this category to include any father who is present but incapable of having any real impact on the progression of the story. Examples of this include the estranged parents in Sleeping Beauty (1960) and Tangled (2010), the inept sultan in Aladdin (1992), and the well-meaning Gepetto from Pinocchio (1940). I believe these father figures express a sort of wish fulfillment somewhat akin to what was played out in Home Alone (1990). Kids do not want to be rescued or have their parents swoop in and take control. They want to see protagonists earn and achieve their happy ending themselves. Sigmund Freud explains, “Children are completely egoistic; they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them.” This transcends to their preferred form of escapism as well.
The last type of father in Disney animated tales are the disapproving dads who stand as obstacles to the protagonists happy ending before coming around and eventually aiding somehow in their child’s quest. We see this type of father in The Little Mermaid (1989), Pocahontas (1995), Tarzan (1999), Mulan (1998) and a warped variation of it in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). These fathers work off of the much more recent philosophy of the Fresh Prince, which is that “parents just do not understand.” In truth, this idea is also timeless and universal and somehow satisfies both the child as the protagonist inevitably rebels and the parents as it always leads to trouble in which the protagonist has to admit fault and grow, and yet without making that mistake the happy ending never would have been possible. In Tarzan, Kerchak tells Tarzan not have anything to do with the humans. He does and it leads to Clayton trapping all of Tarzan’s friends and family. It also leads to his romance with Jane. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel is told not to have anything to do with humans. She does and it leads to her forfeiting her voice and her father’s throne to the demented Ursula. But it also leads to her dream of being human and falling in love with the Prince. In Pocahontas, the title character is told not to have anything to do with the white men. She does and it leads to strife between the two races. But it also eventually serves to break up that strife. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is much more complicated as there is a father figure, Judge Claude Frolo, rather than a father and that figure is incredibly evil. The film operates in many ways like a horror film, and works off of the nightmare of not just being unable to depend on your father, but of putting faith in a father who would return it with evil. Frolo in the end attempts to kill Quasimodo.
I went into this paper with an awareness of Disney’s history of unreliable fathers in their films. Though it is routinely portrayed as fate that makes them unable to help the protagonist, I wanted to look at the subtext of what was happening in these films. I think what makes these films timeless is the timeless psychology that lies underneath their surface. After seventy years of movies it cannot be something that these animators and writers are unaware of. So could it be an awareness on their part of an unconscious desire of children to see protagonists not shackled by authority figures and authors of their own path? Or maybe these films fill a desire for horror in controlled doses. Losing parents is horrific, but it is often done in a subtle way. In any case there is much more at work in a Disney animated films than appears at first glance.