One of the questions I get asked most often is why parents in movies for children are always dead or otherwise out of the picture. As I wrote in my book, The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies:
This is often much more troubling for parents than for kids, though some children will ask what happened to Heidi’s parents or Dorothy’s parents or become upset when the parents are killed in “The Witches” and “James and the Giant Peach.” Even in movies where the child has loving parents, they are physically separated for the course of the movie, as in “Home Alone,” “Peter Pan,” and “Pinnochio.” Adults who watch these films (and are at a stage of life when they have reason to be concerned about losing their own parents) are sometimes upset at this consistent theme and wonder if there is some sort of maliciousness behind it. There isn’t. Parents are missing in children’s films for two reasons. First, it is very hard to place a child in the middle of the action if a parent is there to protect and warn him. It removes most of the narrative momentum. Second, one thing it is impossible to have in a movie about a child is romance. And a single parent provides the potential for a romantic happy ending to appeal to a broader audience.
This is true not just of movies but of all kinds of stories. Alice in Wonderland has parents somewhere but we only meet her sister and that only briefly. The character modeled after Mark Twain’s own mother is called “Aunt Polly” in Tom Sawyer. Huck Finn has an alcoholic and abusive father (who is killed in the book) and no mother. Dorothy Gale lives with her aunt and uncle. Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty have lost their biological mothers and are treated badly by evil stepmothers. “Home Alone” is an entire movie about a child coping without his parents. Shirley Temple never had both parents except in one film where her parents were estranged and her role was to bring them together.
A child has to be alone in order to have an adventure. And the child who reads or watches the story can vicariously enjoy the independence of the character while (we hope) being confident that his or her own family is secure.
The current issue of The Atlantic explores this question in an article by Sarah Boxer called “Why Are All the Cartoon Mothers Dead?” Her focus is on a recent trend in movies to eliminate the mother but give the child a fun and loving father. This includes films from “Finding Nemo” (though of course Nemo spends most of the movie separated from his over-protective father) and “Despicable Me” to “Mr. Peabody.” (On the other hand, in the “Toy Story” movies, Andy has a single mom.) But she concludes with a good example of a loving family with two parents: “The Incredibles.”