TORONTO - Nemo's mother is eaten by a barracuda; Tarzan's parents fall prey to a leopard; and don't forget Bambi's mother — she was gunned down by a hunter. Children's animated films are rife with murder and mayhem.
While such movie videos make popular gifts at Christmas and Hanukkah, parents may want to take precautions when young children first watch these films, which researchers say could traumatize little ones unprepared for characters dying — often in horrible ways.
Their study, entitled "Cartoons Kill," is published in the Christmas issue of the BMJ, the journal's annual edition that's typically dedicated to tongue-in-cheek medical research and other light-hearted offerings.
And while this study may be about animated films, its message is deadly serious.
"I think a lot of people have talked about this, the fact that there seems to be a lot of deaths in children's films," said Ian Colman, a mental health epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa. "And we thought, let's have a look at this, and it seems to be timely."
Colman and co-principal investigator James Kirkbride of University College London in the U.K. used standard epidemiological techniques to analyze how soon into an animated kids' film a significant character meets their end.
The record is held by 2003's "Finding Nemo," in which the main character's mother — and dozens of his gestating clown fish siblings — are gobbled up by the voracious undersea predator four minutes into the film.
"I've got two young kids myself, and I started watching these films, and my kids have been quite honestly traumatized by a few of them," Colman said of his four-year-old son and six-year-old daughter.
"We tried watching 'The Land Before Time,' which seems pretty innocent. You've got these cute little cartoon dinosaurs, but the mother of the main character gets savagely attacked and killed by a Tyrannosaurus rex in the first five minutes of the film. And at that point my daughter (about age four at the time) was just completely hysterical and begging me to stop the film.
"And when we saw something similar in 'Finding Nemo,' we really started to think maybe there's something going on here."
The research team viewed 45 of the top-grossing animated children's films and twice that number of dramatic movies aimed at adults — 135 in all — to determine in which genres the risk was greatest for a main character or a significant family member or friend to die.
The animated movies made for kids won hands-down.
"We found that death of a significant character was 2.5 times more likely in children's animated films than in dramatic films for adults," said Colman. "We also found that those deaths were 2.8 times more likely to be murder in the children's films and that the victims of the deaths were five times more likely to be parents in the children's films."
The 1999 animated version of "Tarzan" was No. 2 on their list for a quick death scene — the boy's parents were eaten by the big cat in the first five minutes.
The most recent kids' film with an early-to-die character was last year's "Frozen," in which both parents of the main characters — two princesses — drown when their ship sinks about 10 minutes into the movie.
Colman said about the time "Frozen" was in theatres, he was practising for an upcoming dragon-boat race and his kids didn't want him to go. It took a while to figure out that they were afraid his boat would sink and he would drown like the princesses' parents, he said.
"I know some of these films have been quite traumatic for my kids and they've led to a lot of questions. Many of these films, as soon as they end, the kids start asking: 'Why this?' and 'Why that?'
"This can actually be a good thing because it can give us a chance to talk about some important concepts, like death. But it can also make for some really difficult conversations that kids may not be ready for, and this is particularly important for younger kids."
Dr. Sandra Mendlowitz, a psychologist in the anxiety program at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, said such violence has been a part of children's animated films and TV cartoons going back many decades.
For instance, Saturday morning cartoon staple Wile E. Coyote was repeatedly smashed on the head, blown up or dropped off a mountainside as he pursued the Road Runner ("beep, beep"), yet he always bounced back.
Mendlowitz said the idea that characters come back to life after such normally fatal acts represents a distortion of reality that doesn't allow children to process the concept of death or understand its finality. Yet movies in which a major character is killed and never seen again can also be troubling for young kids.
"What a lot of parents don't understand is that really young children do not have a concept of death. And it doesn't matter how bright they are ... because understanding the concept of death runs a development spectrum," she said Tuesday.
"The concept isn't even begun to be understood until between ages five and seven and is really not solidified in most kids until nine or 10."
Mendlowitz, who was not involved in the BMJ paper, said mental health experts have known for some time that exposure to brutality and violent death in films and other media can have harmful effects on children.
"The problem is that if you see a lot of violence you can become very frightened or traumatized or you can become less sensitive to violence, and the longer-term effects are the potential to behave aggressively," she said, advising that a parent should watch animated films with their child so they can monitor and explain any content that spawns confusion or upset.
Colman said the researchers had expected that there would be fewer deaths in more recent animated films because many of today's parents have a tendency to bubble-wrap their kids. But they found "things are just as bad now" as in 1937's "Snow White," when the seven dwarves, seeking vengeance, pushed the Evil Queen off a cliff to her death.
"I think the message from this study is that just because a film has a cute clown fish, a princess or a beautiful baby deer as a main character, it doesn't mean that there won't be murder and mayhem," he said, agreeing that young kids should see a film for the first time with a parent.
"That way if there are difficult themes that come up, the children can talk to you about it. And when the children want to watch the film for the second time — or the 42nd time — you're going to know exactly what they're going to see."
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