Since the 1937 debut of Snow white the films of Walt Disney have been a staple of childhood around the world. Despite the popularity of the studio’s animated adventures, however, one trend has been a point of contention amongst fans and critics alike; the recurring absence of mothers and mother figures throughout the studio’s catalog. From the death of Bambi’s mother to the numerous portrayals of wicked step-mothers, evidence abounds that the wonderful world of Disney is less than wonderful for Mom. Fortunately, while significant portrayals of mothers in Disney’s animated films may be few and far between, what these mothers lack in quantity they more than make up for in quality. In recognition of Mother’s Day I’ll be shining the spotlight on three of Disney’s most memorable animated mothers. Tell me who your favorite Disney moms are in the comments!
Mrs. Jumbo-Perhaps best known for its critiques of both bullying and animal abuse, Dumbo is also a compelling testament to the power of maternal love. Being a single working mom isn’t easy, and as Mrs. Jumbo shows us, that fact holds true for four as well as two-legged mothers. Throughout Dumbo Mrs. Jumbo tries to shield her son from the harsh realities of circus life, but despite her best efforts, Dumbo remains a favorite target for harassment from both circus staff and audiences. From virtually the moment he is born he is subjected to scrutiny from the other circus animals who mock his unusually large ears and hurtfully nickname him ‘Dumbo’. Emboldened by the shy elephant’s inability to stand up for himself the circus animals continue to berate him as he grows up. The only light in his bleak existence in captivity is his mother who defends him against the other animals’ mockery and provides him with unconditional love and support. She finally reaches her breaking point, however, when a group of children in the audience cruelly mock Dumbo during a performance and lashes out in a justified attack. While the children obviously provoked the attack Mrs. Jumbo is still labeled ‘mad’ and chained in a circus train car that functions as a solitary confinement cell. The separation proves devastating for mother and son, as is best demonstrated in a heart-wrenching scene in which he visits her at her cell only to find that they are still separated by prison bars. The remainder of the film’s plot chronicles his efforts to find the courage to stand up to the adversity surrounding him and reunite with his mother. While the film’s plot veers into the fantastic, its depiction of motherly love remains starkly grounded in reality. From acting as Dumbo’s guardian and defender to facing imprisonment for his sake Mrs. Jumbo proves herself to have a heart whose size matches her name.
Kala- The jungle is a decidedly less than ideal place to raise a family, and interspecies families are unconventional to say the least and yet gorilla Kala manages to make her unorthodox family a truly loving one in 1999’s Tarzan. Grieving from the loss of her own son, Kala discovers the orphaned Tarzan after his parents are killed in a brutal leopard attack and is touched by the child’s plight. When the leopard returns to finish the slaughter it started she springs into action and risks her own life to save him. Upon bringing him to the safety of her gorilla troop she decides to adopt the child as her own against the urging of the other gorilla’s especially her mate, Kerchak who refuses to acknowledge, let alone bond with Tarzan. While the other gorillas’ bullying, Kerchak’s disapproval, and his own appearance prove constant reminders of how different he is from his adopted family, Kala treats Tarzan with the same love and respect that she would her biological child. With her guidance and support he grows up with the firm belief that who he is matters more than how he appears to others. It is the respect for himself and others that she instills in him that later allows him to form a bond with Jane despite their many differences. When resented with the choice between suitor Clayton and Tarzan it is the respect, kindness, and generosity that Kala taught Tarzan that ultimately wins Jane over. Even after he is offered the opportunity to return to England with Jane and take his place amongst human society Kala continues to put Tarzan’s needs first and lead by example when she encourages him to make his own decision whatever the outcome may be. In one of the film’s most heartfelt moments he assures her that “no matter where I go or what I do you will always be my mother” reminding us all that it is love and not blood that defines a family.
Nani-With its modern setting, sci-fi subplot, and rocking Elvis Presley score Lilo and Stitch is one of Disney’s most unique efforts. The story’s primary focus is upon the fish-out of water story of an alien experiment struggling to fit in on earth as he tries to remain one step ahead of the galactic police trailing him. While Stitch’s adventures provide a fascinating story arc and plenty of laughs, it is the relationship between the two human sisters who adopt him that provides the film with its emotional core. After the death of their parents Nani is thrown into the role of surrogate mother and father to her willful younger sister, Lilo. Although barely out of school herself, Nani aptly assumes the role of family breadwinner and parent while coping with her own grief. Even as Lilo continues to drive Nani crazy in the way that only a sister can, Nani continuously makes Lilo her priority as she works grueling hours and puts her social life on hold in an effort to create a stable home and keep social services at bay. Through each step their by turns bizarre and difficult journey Nani and Lilo continue to face the future together, personifying the true meaning of ‘ohana’, the Hawaiian word for family which Lilo explains means ‘nobody gets left behind or forgotten’.