In defense of the utterly heartbreaking ‘Disney Death’

We all know the drill by now. In a Disney movie, if the protagonist isn’t an orphan at the opening of the film, there’s approximately a 99.999 percent chance that she will be by the time the closing credits roll.

In case you haven’t been to the movies (ever) or have successfully blocked out the emotional trauma caused by this phenomenon, Disney’s laundry list of films with orphaned protagonists include Frozen, The Lion King, The Fox and the Hound, The Princess and the Frog, Tarzan, Lilo & Stitch, Cinderella, Snow White, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I could go on and on. And on. Don’t even get me started on Bambi…sniffle.

Disney’s most recent offering, Big Hero 6, employs the concept of the protagonist touched by familial tragedy and takes it a step further.

(Spoiler alert: Stop reading here if you don’t want to know anything more about how this movie—or any Disney movie—plays out.)

You know, in case an orphaned 14-year old robotics genius with a rebellious streak and great hair doesn’t tug on your heartstrings enough already. Minutes into the film, we see young Hiro Hamada saved from getting into big trouble by his older brother Tadashi. Tadashi is as swoonworthy as an animated character can be. He’s cute, looks out for Hiro and devotes his time at the robotics lab at his fancy science college to creating Baymax, a personal healthcare robot made to look especially huggable. Basically, Tadashi has a heart of gold. So of course he must die. He perishes in the most heroic way possible—by dashing into a burning building to save his favorite professor.

Poor Hiro. We’re less than half an hour into the movie, and he’s already lost both parents and a brother. But wait…there’s more.

Hiro, languishing in grief, accidentally activates Baymax, his brother’s creation. Baymax is kind of like a love child of the Pillsbury Dough Boy and the Iron Giant. He’s squishy and sympathetic. He’s endearing and devoted to his mission of helping people. His programming even prohibits him from harming anyone. So naturally, we are also forced to watch Baymax meet his tragic demise. This loss hit me harder than any of the others in the film, even though he was technically a robot. I definitely had to blink back tears as he drifted farther and farther away in a swirling vortex in an act of sacrificial love. He saved Hiro, but in order to do so, he had to die.

And here we have the main reason why death in a Disney film so often feels like a punch to the gut—the character typically dies in an act of bravery. He sacrifices himself, not just for the greater good, but for the protagonist. This is why we wept when Mufasa died in The Lion King. Sure, his evil brother Scar is the one who gave him the final push off the cliff into the great beyond. But Mufasa never would have been on that cliff in the first place if he hadn’t come to rescue Simba from a stampeding herd of wildebeests.

Even worse is when the protagonist feels responsible for the situation that made the sacrifice necessary, as was the case with Simba. He was in a place where he knew he wasn’t supposed to be. Yet his father came to his rescue anyway and died in the process. Not only is the audience devastated by the sacrifice, but now our Simba has been perfectly set up for the path to redemption. The film’s happy ending is made even more powerful because with it comes healing for our king of the jungle.

But back to our lovable marshmallow man, Baymax, who we left drifting into oblivion a few paragraphs ago. We cried. He died. Or did he?

Baymax is a classic case of the trope known as the Disney Death. Ironically, this plot device isn’t actually a death at all. Sam Adams, writing for Criticwire, explains it as “the much (ab)used tactic in which a character’s apparent demise is milked for maximum pathos before they’re magically revived.”

That’s right. No one actually dies. We just think the character is dead long enough for us to get good and misty-eyed, and then—poof—something magical happens to bring her back to life. This is the classic scene where the prince comes riding in on a white horse and revives a heroine from eternal slumber with true love’s kiss. In fact, the first big screen Disney Death played out exactly that way in 1937 when Snow White’s eyes fluttered open after a kiss from Prince Charming. The seven dwarves and all the forest animals dried their tears. Everyone lived happily ever after.

Since Snow White’s resurrection, the Disney Death has been used time and time and time again. Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, The Great Mouse Detective and The Hunchback of Notre Dame all contain scenes where characters are magically brought back to life. More recent films are no exception, including The Little Mermaid, Wreck-It-Ralph, Tangled and yes, even Big Hero 6. Baymax lives on when his soul (memory card) is placed in a new, equally puffy, equally huggable body. I, for one, was glad. I would have missed that sweetheart.

In an article for The Dissolve, Tasha Robinson calls for an end to the Disney Death, saying, “The more Disney returns to the exact same well, the less the Disney Death can possibly feel organic, no matter how thoroughly it’s worked into the story.”

I tend to disagree.

Yes, the plot device still shows up in Disney films. A lot. It’s a way to make us become emotionally invested in the movie, to make us feel all the feels, but still have our happily-ever-after. These movies are made for kids, after all. At the end of the day, do we really want to leave them traumatized? As for the real Disney deaths, the ones in Bambi and the Lion King, their spirits live on—and their acts of bravery offer a bold, if jarring, lesson in familial love. The hero is the child and the child is put first. And that’s ultimately a beautiful thing.

Lately, the Disney Death (or Disney Resurrection, as we should call it) has become a bit more creative. I loved the end of Maleficent, where true love’s kiss doesn’t come from a man, but from Maleficent herself. Mirror Mirror also had a rather feminist twist on the traditional ending when Snow White revived the prince instead of the other way around.

Believe me, no one loves romance more than I do. I write about romance every single day. But do we really want to teach young girls that being loved by a man is all that matters or the only thing that can save her? No, which is why I think that the Disney Death plot device isn’t quite ready for retirement so long as it continues to be used in new and unexpected ways.

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