That’s all, folks: Death and mayhem in children’s cartoons

A scene from the animated classic "Finding Nemo." Nemo's mother is eaten by a barracuda 4 minutes and 3 seconds into the film.
(Pixar Animation Studios)

Think there’s nothing more wholesome than a tub of popcorn and a classic children’s animated film?

Guess again, say Canadian researchers.

When it comes to big-screen murder and mayhem, kids’ animated films pack the deadliest wallop of all top-grossing films, according to a statistical survival analysis published Tuesday in the journal BMJ.

“Rather than being the innocuous form of entertainment they are assumed to be, children’s animated films are rife with on-screen death and murder,” wrote lead study author Ian Colman, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Ottawa, and his colleagues.


Among other findings, Colman and his colleagues found that murder occurred three times more often in top-grossing animated children’s films than it did in comparable adult dramas.

In fact, the parents of main characters were the primary targets of on-screen death in children’s flicks, and were five times as likely to meet an untimely end than they were in films for adults.

“There was no evidence to suggest these results had changed over time since 1937, when Snow White’s stepmother, the evil queen, was struck by lightning, forced off a cliff, and crushed by a boulder while being chased by seven vengeful dwarves,” the authors wrote.

The analysis appeared in BMJ’s tongue-in-cheek Christmas issue, which has explored such topics as the on-screen tippling habits of James Bond, the propensity for “idiotic” behavior in male Homo sapiens, and why your doctor’s waiting room has such old magazines.


The cartoon study, according to authors, was inadvertently inspired by some advice Colman received from a friend: “You’re watching ‘Finding Nemo’ with your children this evening? Take my advice: skip over the first 5 minutes.”

The reason? Nemo’s mother gets eaten by a barracuda 4 minutes and 3 seconds into the film. (Compare that with “Tarzan,” where the main character’s parents are killed by a leopard 4 minutes and 8 seconds into the movie.)

The authors conducted their research by watching 135 top-grossing North American films since 1937. The films included 45 children’s animated movies and 90 dramatic films for adults. (Children’s’ films that featured only robots, planes or cars were excluded, as the concept of mortality for a non-living, yet anthropomorphized character is unclear, the authors wrote.)

The researchers found that two-thirds of the cartoons depicted the death of an important character, compared with half of those in adult dramas.


Researchers observed deadly animal attacks in five films (“A Bug’s Life,” “The Croods,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Finding Nemo” and “Tarzan”); gunshot slayings in three films (“Bambi,” “Peter Pan” and “Pocahontas”); and fatal stabbings in two films (“Sleeping Beauty” and “The Little Mermaid”).

The authors note that children’s literature and the works of the brothers Grimm have long featured gruesome deaths.

However, as child mortality rates have decreased over the centuries, the researchers say death has become an increasingly taboo subject to discuss with children. As such, many youngsters may be unprepared for what they encounter in a G-rated Disney film.

“Exposure to on-screen death and violence can be frightening to young children and can have intense and long-lasting effects,” authors wrote. “This might be particularly problematic when children have not been prepared, through candid discussion with parents or caring adults, to face these themes.”

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