Life and Death and Disney

A few weeks ago I was listening to an interview with Michael Eisner, former CEO of Disney, on NPR. He was promoting his new book, Working Together, Why Great Partnerships Succeed. It was an interesting interview, and as usual, Diane Rehm took questions by phone and by e-mail that were then posed to Mr. Eisner on the air. What made this interview stick in my head was not anything in particular about the book, but a comment/question that was sent in by a listener. I don’t remember the exact words, but the comment was something along the lines of how the movie Bambi had caused the listener to run crying from the movie theatre, and whether or not Mr. Eisner felt that scenes such as the death of Bambi’s mother are appropriate for children’s movies. Mr. Eisner declined to really discuss the question, stating that Bambi was made some years before he took the helm of Disney, and the interview moved on.

This was one of the few times that I was inclined to actually call in to a talk show. If I had, this is what I would have said: I think that a child whose first personal experience of death is the loss of Bambi’s mother is a very lucky child indeed.

* * * * *

I’ll admit it; our T.V. is on around here A LOT, more often than not playing kid’s shows on DVD, or Disney movies, or for awhile there last fall – at my daughter’s repeated request – one of the six movies comprising the Star Wars saga. This used to bother me. I used to worry that we might be allowing our child’s brain to rot; that we were being bad or inattentive or just plain parents. But lately, I’m starting to reconsider my position here. I’m starting to wonder if, just like the death of Bambi’s mother in Disney’s famous movie, the T.V. issue is all what you make of it.

For us, the television has always been a conversation-starter. Since she’s been old enough to really start asking questions, and since she began to watch things more sophisticated than Elmo, we have talked through almost everything that she has ever seen. “Who’s that?” “What’s that’s name?” “What happened?” “What happened to Bambi’s mother?” We always identify the “toot” – the “bad guy” in the movie, if there is one – and why they’re a toot, and whether or not they redeem themselves. We talk about the fact that there are “toots” in this world, and how a person can keep from becoming one.

We’re always right there ready and willing to answer the questions. And as we go through our day we’re constantly connecting dots. Like connecting what happened to Bambi’s mom with the baby bird she saw one of my dogs kill in the back yard; to the worm we later saw hanging out of a “mother” bird’s mouth; to the decomposing and insect-infested squirrel we saw on the road one day while taking a walk around the neighborhood; to the chickens and pig and eggs we buy from a local farm; to the missing (deceased) parent in so many fairy tales and Disney movies; all the way to the recent death of her last surviving great grandparent. We’ve had conversations about death, and what happens when we die that I never expected to be having with a three year old, and she’s taken it all in stride.

And the earliest conversation I can remember having with her about death started with, “What happened to Bambi’s mom?”

* * * * *

The very first time that my daughter asked this, I explained to her that Bambi’s mom was killed by a hunter, that some people kill the animals that they eat themselves, and that this is part of the circle of life – everything eats something else. When the dogs killed the bird in the back yard, she didn’t cry or seem scared, but she kept asking, “What happened to the baby bird?” I explained to her that most animals in the wild hunt other animals for food, and that even though our dogs aren’t wild, that even though we give them food to eat so they don’t have to hunt, that all animals (even domesticated ones) have something inside them called “instinct” which tells them what to do when they’re wild. I told her that our dogs (which are all cockers and cocker mixes) hunted the baby bird because their instinct said, “Hey, you could eat that!” We went over this a number of times. Then we saw the bird with a worm in its mouth, and I pointed out that bird, and explained that that bird had hunted that worm for food, the same way that the dogs had hunted the other bird for food.

It was a heavier conversation than I was prepared (or hoping) to have with a three-year-old, but the immediacy of the situation with the dogs and the baby bird made it necessary, and at the time, I thought it went okay.

Now, over a year later, I’m thinking it actually went pretty well. Because a few nights ago, out of the blue, my daughter asked, “Mom, do you remember when the dogs said, ‘Hey, that’s food! That’s food!’ and they killed that baby bird in the back yard? That was sad.”

“Yeah,” I said. “That was sad.”

It was one of those parental moments when you realize – Wow. The kid not only listened to me, but internalized something that I said.

From all of these Bambi conversations, from the dead bird and the dangling worm, and the insects eating the squirrel in the road, realization of her own mortality, of course, was inevitable, and it came on pretty quickly, and we had a lot of conversations about that. But even that seems to have passed. That we are all eventually going to die still occasionally comes up in conversation, but not in the context of being afraid anymore.

* * * * *

Death – and the symbiosis between life and death – is everywhere, even here in the suburbs. It’s in our back yards and at our dining room tables. To imply that Disney ought to keep death out of its movies seems to me a bit of a stretch, especially when a Disney death is pretty mild compared to most of what’s available for viewing in our living rooms every day.

To the woman who wrote into the Diane Rehm show about her Bambi experience, I would say that I don’t think it’s fair to place responsibility for guidance about difficult things like death in Disney’s lap. I think Disney does a great job of keeping the “family” audience in mind when they develop their animated features. But that doesn’t mean that a kid watching a Disney movie doesn’t need someone there with them to help them to digest it.

To Disney – with all of their deceased parents and lovesick princesses and scary toots – I say, bring it on.

We’re ready for you here.

  • Published on Oct 6, 2010
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