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Death in children’s movies: the loss of innocence as a subversive agenda in Hollywood

Posted by E on August 20, 2007

pets dog and cat

Although I don’t have children of my own, I used to be a children’s English teacher while working in Asia. I learned to enjoy watching movies with my class and discuss them as part of our conversation exercises. So while I don’t teach anymore these days, whenever I want to relax, I surf the channels for a family movie. I enjoy the simple entertainment and the lack of violence, dead bodies and forensic obsession that has infested regular television channels on a nightly basis.

So tonight, as I was going through the sparse choices for a movie on television tonight, I spotted a movie about two kids hiding a dog in their apartment. But these days, as a precaution before I watch any films involving animals, I did a cursory look-up of the title on the net; there is hardly anything I hate more than to watch something that has me emotionally-invested, only to find out the dog is run over by a car at the end.

Sure enough, a movie reviewer described being in the theatre seeing this particular movie, when a sad turn near the end had all the children in the audience sobbing. I’d heard enough, and I decided to watch something else.

But not before I wondered why Hollywood has decided to kill off all the animals in its movies. In mainstream films aimed at more mature audiences, dogs/rabbits/cats are murdered by crazy neighbours or obsessive stalkers a la Fatal Attraction. And in children’s films, even those churned out by Disney, the pets die as a lesson to children about how sad things happen in life.

I once again reflected on the sad state of “family” films these days. A happy ending has now become an oxymoron for any film involving pets. In the last year, there were only a couple of films involving animals where the poor beast was not killed: albeit they involved horses that were at some point injured or close to death (i.e. Dreamer, Seabiscuit).

Horses who have died in movies and children’s books: Phar Lap, Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, My Pal Trigger, The Red Pony, etc.

These days, nearly every film involving a dog, fish, deer or lion results in the inevitable demise of a main character.

Isn’t childhood these days so fleeting that studios must still carry an agenda of “teaching important moral lessons” wrapped under the guise of death and sadness?

Ever since Bambi‘s mother was killed by a hunter, innocence has been a target on the chopping block of studio executives. In one film whose title escapes me, a young boy has to go shoot his ailing pet dog as a way to show that he is finally “becoming a man.” Update: the movie is Old Yeller, a childhood trauma favourite.

I am so sick and tired of the suggestion that kids will somehow learn certain important lessons from the heartache of losing a pet, whether their own or the brief attachment they make when they watch a beloved creature in a movie. There is enough trauma and sadness in this world without adults making it a point to provoke grief in the fragile psyches of young children.

If it isn’t Simba’s father, the great Mufasa in The Lion King, then it has to be Nemo’s mother and 498 brothers and sisters, eaten in the first 10 minutes. Littlefoot’s mother is killed in The Land Before Time; the Lion in Narnia sacrifices his life; 3 of the huskies in Snow Dogs are killed; in All Dogs Go to Heaven, Charlie is run over by a car; and so on, and so forth.

Other such favourite book-movie remakes include The Yearling, where Bambi and Bambi’s mother get killed off. Adding to this is the old Hollywood twist of having the young protagonist actually pick up a rifle and shoot their beloved and domesticated pet deer in the head.

In Where the Red Fern Grows, not one but two dogs bite the dust – a pair of loyal, beloved hounds who save their master’s life end up being killed off as some sort of symbolic demonstration of love and sacrifice. WTF??

Then there is Never Cry Wolf, Julie of the Wolves, and White Fang, in which all the wolf-dogs kick the bucket by the end. (Remember Snow Dogs which I mentioned earlier – which outdoes all its predecesors by killing 3 dogs at the end). So here is a general rule of thumb for you: don’t watch movies (or read books) involving huskies and the arctic. Not a good idea.

They all die at the end.

More random animal murders take place in film renditions of crappy books such as J.T. and Sounder, where the stories are just as miserable and full of torment and suffering as the ending of the poor dog himself.

Don’t even get me started with the whole let’s-kill-the-villains theme in kids’ movies: in Little Mermaid, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, the villain is always killed at the end. I think we can beat the villain or set up a situation without always killing someone.

Whatever happened to portraying happiness? Or is that too boring for film studios? I’ll take Benji any day over Lassie, where a brave little dog is shown beaten to death, and Lassie is whipped by a bad owner.

To all readers, I ask you to help me out here. Please add your comments and name any other films you know of where the animals are killed by the end: I want to compile a list of movies I would never show a child.

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4 Responses to “Death in children’s movies: the loss of innocence as a subversive agenda in Hollywood”

  1. Tisha said


    This subject is fairly close for my family this week, as our dog collapsed while we were on vacation and is now fighting for her life in the vet’s office, even as I write this. (Thank God we were not too far from our normal vet’s office!!). This has been traumatizing for our nine year old god-son, who lives with us often and was on vacation with us at the time. The obvious illness and possible death of his beloved “Dolly”, IMO, has lead to much heightened insecurity and anxiety about the “bad things” in life rather than increased maturity and a resigned acceptance that all life must eventually die as part of the greater cycle of life. Looking directly at death is NOT glamorous, I DON’T believe it leads to greater maturity and is, in fact, REALLY scary for all of us, but none so much as a sensitive and loving nine y.o. who has already had too much pain in his short life. We are, of course, considering euthanasia if current interventions don’t work, but, in our opinion, this is “adult content” and the decision and process won’t be shared with a nine year old. He will have enough to deal with simply adjusting to the death of a beloved pet.

    All of this to say that, obviously, the insistence on animal death in the media is a huge pet peeve for me! 🙂

    BTW, Elisa, is the movie you’re thinking of “Old Yeller”?…….

  2. Elisa said

    Yes, it was Old Yeller! Ugh, I even blocked the name out, it seems. There are just way too many sad things out there.

    I’m so sorry to hear about your dog! I hope she will come out of it. It must’ve been such a shock to all of you. It’s the kind of thing I dread the most – going out of town and having my cat get ill while I am gone. I feel guilty enough just leaving him alone for a weekend…and we went through a similar situation when he was a kitten. He was in the pet hospital for 5 days and almost died…everyone in his litter died except for him. He made it, and he’s been strong ever since (2 and 1/2 now).
    Sending you lots of good wishes for your pup, and hope you all stay strong.

  3. Tisha said

    Aw, Elisa, thanks so much. It really means a lot to get all the well wishes from friends. Unfortunately, our “Dolly Mama” didn’t make it. She was a rescue from a raided crackhouse in NYC and the combination of malnutrition, dehydration and 9 litters in a little under 3 years of life just used up those poor kidneys. My only consolation is that got to live with us till she was 5 and she was able to find out about things like sleeping on beds and scraps from the table and loving a boy and chasing cats and fenced back yards and Grandmas and chew toys and walks in the park. At least she got that much 🙂 But we miss her dreadfully….

    Ah! I thought the movie might be Old Yeller. That book depressed me so much my mother thought she was going to have to take me to a shrink. Blessedly, that book disappeared soon after, never to be seen by me again. I won’t even watch any other program that night on a station that airs the movie. The Yearling was another one that had no business being a kid’s book, either. It’s just not child friendly content. Ugh, why do we DO that to kids?

  4. Just catching up with you after too long and found this post that is so close to my own heart. The list of movies my kids will have to be adults to see is long and heavily skewed Disney. Since I’ve still not recovered from my “Old Yeller” experience … a birthday ‘treat’ when I was eight that had me wondering why my parents hated me so much … there’s no way I’m putting my kids through anything like that. My oldest kids are now 38 and 37, and I don’t think they’ve seen that one yet. I also steered them away from “Black Beauty”, “Bambi”, and the rest.

    Speaking of hidden agendas in kid flicks, “Pinocchio” was a revelation when viewed as an adult. All my gay friends swear it was inspirational, and you sure have to hand it to the Disney folks in charge at the time. Think of trying to sell it now … a story of an old man who wants nothing more than a little boy of his very own, blue fairy shows up and grants the wish, little boy is picked up by a couple of guys who corrupt him and end up taking him to Paradise Island where he is turned into an ass. And don’t forget the bit where he and the old guy are swallowed by a sperm whale.

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