Death, Disney and Dion


It’s a grim truism that it doesn’t pay to be a parent in an animated Disney movie. I mean, two words: Bambi’s mom. Right?

And that poor deer is just (perhaps) the most well-known character on a long, long list of parents who don’t make it out alive (or are never around in the first place) in animated Disney (and, later, Pixar) flicks. Snow White, Cinderella, Anna, Elsa? Orphans, one and all. One parent or both either die or is already dead in a long litany of other Disney films, including Finding Nemo, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, Pinocchio, The Little Mermaid and The Fox and the Hound, among others.

Now, as many parents before me have had to do, introducing these stories to our children can be a ticklish business, enough to make us wonder in exasperation, Why do they always have to off Mom and Dad in Disney movies?

I’m not going to try to answer that question—an inquiry that many others have unpacked before me—in this blog post. Instead, I’m actually going to flip this question on its metaphorical head and talk about how these sad, sad stories can also have redemptive power … perhaps even opening the door to help us begin to work through loss and pain ourselves.

Céline Dion talked about exactly that subject earlier this month.

In January, the singer lost her husband of 21 years, René Angélil, to throat cancer. She’s talked openly since then about how she’s grieving the death of the man she’s repeatedly called “the love of her life.” Along the way, she’s also talked about how she’s used one of those poignant Disney deaths to help her own children, 15-year-old René-Charles and five-year-old twins Nelson and Eddy, deal with their father’s passing .

In May, she told ABC News’ Deborah Roberts that Pixar’s movie Up—which begins with the death of elderly Carl Fredricksen’s beloved wife, Ellie—has given them a way to remember the man who meant so much to them. “Every night, we kiss him good night,” she said. “Eddy starts. Two fingers, one finger. And he said, ‘I love you Papa, so much. Happy Easter. Happy Halloween. Happy Christmas. Happy ‘up,’ Papa. I love you so much. I miss you.’ … [Then] Nelson goes, and he repeats almost the same thing, but he adds more stuff. And then I do the thing, too, and I [say], ‘Good night, my love.'”

Earlier this month, Dion elaborated a bit more to Yahoo News on how Up has helped her youngest boys process their grief. “I asked for some books for children to help me to how to guide them through this. Especially the twins, of course. And it kind of, like, shook me up so much. It was not my way of wanting to talk to my children,” she said.

But Up lit a way forward for her when those other resources came up short. “Up saved my life. I said, ‘What is the movie that Ellie died in?’ And they said, ‘Ellie died in the movie Up, Mom.’ I said, ‘That’s it. Ellie,’ I said. ‘Well, I want you to know listen to me.’ I said, ‘Papa is now with Ellie.'”

I’m not going to delve too deeply into Dion’s theology here, other than to note that she’s at least teaching her children about the concept of heaven. What’s interesting to me is that a fictional death in a film her children were familiar with gave this singer a bridge to help them think about the hard reality of losing someone—a reality that’s a very difficult thing for a little tyke to understand.

We often talk about the power of story at Plugged In. A fair bit of the time, we unpack stories and content that have the potential to influence viewers in negative ways.

The opposite, though, can also be profoundly true. Movies can help us to tap into emotions—to feel them, to express them, to understand them—in ways that can sometimes take us by surprise.

To this day, there are movies I can’t watch without having tears well up. At the end of Dances With Wolves, the character Wind in His Hair tells Kevin Costner’s character, Lt. Dunbar, “Dances With Wolves! … Do you see that I am your friend? I am your friend! Can you see that I will always be your friend?” It just kills me. Waterworks city, every time. There are others, too, but I’ll stop there.

Dion’s story is indeed a deeply sad one. There is simply no easy way around the agony of a loved one’s death. That said, her appropriation of the movie Up is a powerful reminder of the power of the stories we encounter onscreen. And sometimes even the parts of the stories that we’d rather skip become the most important parts of all for those who’ve experienced similar losses.

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