Mothers are central to who we are as people. They are often the first family member to touch us, kiss us, nurture us. Whether you’re a son or a daughter, she is the first person with whom we form a couple. The absence of a mother, then, would strongly imply we cannot form who we are to be until the void is filled by someone. We are not complete human beings without the love and lessons from a mother. So someone needs to be one.
It is quite tempting to pull out the psychology books and figure out why so many Disney characters don’t have mothers. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about animation or live action; there are a lot of characters – especially female ones – who are missing a mother figure.
Some people can point to Walt Disney losing his mother at an early age and not knowing how to cope. Some could point to Freud and come up with something about the id or the super ego.
Considering a great many of these movies are based on fairy tales and folklore that were written far before Walt Disney and Freud were born, I don’t really think that has anything to do with it. The movies were just following stories people were familiar with; that could be easily retold and animated, had an instant appeal to children and probably didn’t impact the copyright laws too much.
I think the reason is much more simple and basic: it would make for a shorter movie.
Let’s take a look at a couple of movies without mama and then stick one in there:
Disney Characters without Mothers: Cinderella
Cinderella lost her mother when they were both very young. Her father remarries giving her a step mother and two step sisters and then he dies living his beloved child alone with three people who do not know her and don’t like her much. They turn her into a servant in her own home. She relies on a fairy godmother to turn produce into transportation and conjure up a smoking dress to crash the ball. But she has to be back before midnight.
She goes to the ball, dances with prince and the two of them know they are right for each other, but she stays a little too long, she has to rush away from her love, losing her shoe in the process. All the cool stuff becomes produced again and the steps think they have her back under their thumb. The prince starts a massive hunt that would give anyone with a foot fetish a sugar rush and eventually finds the foot that fits the slipper and takes his love back to his castle to live with Mum and Dad.
Whether Cinderella is Leslie Ann Warren or Brandy – that’s a full length feature.
Now, should Cindy have a mother, there would be no step-mother, no dreary sisters, no sitting in soot. However, the prince’s circumstances would not change. His parents would still be pressing him to marry. They would still have the ball. But this time, Cinderella would be invited because her family is landed gentry. She would attend (though not in a magic gown) and the Prince, who is rebelling against anything his parents are for, would not find her attractive. In fact, he’d probably look right past her and run off to save Rapunzel. There would be no royal hook-up. Not only is the movie short; it’s boring. Who’d go see that?
Disney Characters without Mothers: Beauty and the Beast
Belle has only her absent minded father to look after her so she is practically on her own getting lost in books dreaming about other lands and places. Because she has to take care of her father, who loves his daughter but just doesn’t think much about her, she has to go looking for him when he gets himself lost and in the clutches of a beast. She offers herself as a prisoner in his place and begins a somewhat freaky emotional love affair with a beast. (Not to mention the teapot, candlestick and clock.) She learns from the beast, he learns from her and she prefers him over Gaston, the boorish idiot who comes to save her. He is vanquished. The magic spell is broken. The beast becomes a blond hottie, the utensils become people and they all live happily ever after.
See, all that takes ninety minutes.
Now stick a mother in there.
“Mother, Father is missing and I’m going to look for him.”
“Your father is a grown man and if he’s gotten himself lost he can darn well get himself found. I’ve told him about going out on his own and he never asks directions. You don’t worry about your father. You get yourself ready for your date with Gaston.”
“But I don’t like Gaston.”
“Girl, look out that window. Do you see that economy? Gaston has a job. Now get upstairs.”
Story over in about six, seven minutes.
The really interesting thing is that regardless of how many parents they do have – they learn their lessons away from all of them. Mulan has two perfectly good parents, but she learns about herself when they are out of reach. Belle all but forgets her father as she grows closer to the Beast and the cutlery.
It’s anyone’s guess why so many of the fairy tales and stories seem to think a mother unnecessary. Perhaps it is simply to make the character more sympathetic. Nothing replaces the love of a mother, but in a Disney movie, characters still earn their happily ever afters.