Most classic children’s movies are terrifically sad, if you think about it: If a cartoon mother fish isn’t eaten by a barracuda in the first five minutes, then a mother deer is shot by hunters, or a father lion is trampled to death by a herd of wildebeest. The cartoon carnage! This week, in a paper published in the British Medical Journal, researchers compared the top-grossing animated children’s movies to dramatic films released the same years, and found that the kids movies featured more onscreen deaths.
The study appears in the BMJ’s annual Christmas edition, which is known for featuring lighter, weirder research subjects than usual. (This year’s covered “male idiot theory,” for example; previous years have included papers with titles like, “Why Rudolph’s nose is red: an observational study.”) Ian Colman, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa and the lead author of the cartoon study, writes in the paper that a coworker accidentally gave him the idea for the study when she said to him, “You’re watching Finding Nemo with your children this evening? Take my advice: skip over the first 5 minutes.”
Colman’s subsequent research found that two thirds of the 45 highest-grossing children’s animated films featured an onscreen death of a major character; in comparison, half of the dramatic films analyzed killed off a main character. (The researchers looked at the highest-grossing non-kids movies released the same year as the children’s films.) Colman and the rest of his team conclude in the paper that “children’s animated films are in fact rife with death and destruction.” Although a movie doesn’t necessarily have to feature death to cause a kid to cry his or her tiny face off, as I and any other child of the late 1980s raised on repeated viewings of An American Tail can tell you.