It’s no secret that many, many Disney heroes & heroines suffer the loss of their mothers. But why? Sure, sometimes that’s a pre-written fairytale Walt didn’t create, but most certainly not all the time. Could it have something to do with his own mother?
Meet Flora Call Disney, a mother of five who raised her children in Marceline, Missouri (a huge inspiration for Main Street USA). Flora and her husband Elias lived in Kansas City and Portland before moving to North Hollywood, into a home purchased by Walt and Roy.
Tragically, Florida died in the home her sons purchased. A faulty furnace caused a gas leak in the home, and both Flora and Elias were rushed to the hospital, but Flora did not survive.
Flora’s death crushed Walt, who felt responsible. And though characters like Snow White were created with deceased mothers before Flora’s death, a pattern of motherless children became unmistakeable in Disney’s animation.
It’s too simple to claim that Walt killed off so many Disney mothers because of his own. Some argue that these characters need to be naive and “on their own”, without much guidance, or else the plots would either be significantly shortened or wouldn’t make sense. Others argue that these stories emphasize unconventional families, pointing out that motherless protagonist adopt friends they meet during their journeys as their chosen families. And then, of course, there were always characters during Walt’s lifetime that had mothers all along, including Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians. Plus, most of the stories that included deceased mothers were developed long after Walt’s death, though he certainly began the pattern.
In the end, the pattern of motherless protagonists is probably a combination of things. It fits the storytelling patterns of a fairytale, to have “lost” characters embark on discovery. And at the same time, Walt probably identified with and was drawn to fairytales and stories including these tragic losses. Whatever the case may be, motherless characters is a trope even non-Disney fans can immediately recognize, and has become an iconic part of the studio’s fairytale storytelling.