ByTommy DePaoli, writer at
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Tommy DePaoli

It's widely known that many of our favorite Disney characters have suffered through the death of a parent (or both parents), but knowing of this trend certainly doesn't make it any easier to deal with!

Mothers are typically the absent figure, but there are plenty of Disney heroes and heroines who are full-blown orphans. Most protagonists struggle with a fractured family unit, allowing them to grow up quicker and venture into life on their own. So yes, there is an upside and an understandable reason for this cruel killing spree, but Disney consistently reminds us of these fallen parents through their family portraits.

This collection of Disney portraits runs the gamut of family structures—from parents who are still in the picture to the ones who met a tragic end. Let's see how Disney manages to tug at our heartstrings using only a picture and a sad, sad backstory.


Tarzan's parents escaped a burning shipwreck with their infant son and ended up somewhere on the coast of Africa (most likely in present-day Gabon). Despite their survival ethics, building a treehouse and making a home in the jungle, they quickly fall prey to the villainous leopard Sabor.

When Kala takes her adopted son back to this early home, this portrait is the only connection to his parents the adult Tarzan really has. Even sadder, Tarzan's parents loved him dearly—enough to sacrifice their lives for him—and he is not old enough to remember. This portrait, then, is really a reminder of what can never be.


Luckily, not all Disney parents are absent due to tragic deaths. In the case of Rapunzel, the King and Queen of Corona were a loving (and living!) duo that lost their child to the manipulative Mother Gothel, who has got to be in the running for most abusive Disney characters of all time.

For eighteen years, though, the King and Queen must have gazed at this portrait dreaming of the return of their daughter and wishing that one day the lanterns will lead her home. This a reversal of the usual equation (main character longing for her parents), but it remains horribly sad all the same. In the end, Rapunzel is reunited with her parents, so I think that a whole new portrait is in order.

Big Hero 6

In Big Hero 6, Fred's wealthy parents are still alive, but they are so busy counting their money and going on vacations to their private isle that they don't spend much time with their son. His friends and teammates become something of a second family to him since his is so absent and almost never in San Fransokyo. Fred's situation proves that not every Disney childhood is plagued by death, but almost all are surrounded by loneliness.

Though he's not around much, Fred's father is at least an animated Stan Lee, so you can't get much cooler than that.

The Princess and the Frog

Growing up, Tiana had a doting mother and father who taught her all about responsibility, independence, and never losing sight of what is actually important. That is until Tiana's father James died fighting in World War I, leaving only a Distinguished Service Cross and a war photo.

While not your typical "family portrait," it represents Tiana's continued connection to her father, whose lessons keep her going well into her adult hood. In the end, Tiana makes good on her late father's wish and runs her own family-owned restaurant. Sadly, he'll never get to eat there.

Beauty and the Beast

Some Disney family portraits are shrouded in mystery, but the questions that they bring up lead to some sad realizations. Nothing is ever mentioned about Prince Adam's parents, not before or after his transformation into the Beast. The most prominent reminder of his former life or any sense of legacy at all is this lone portrait.

So, if Adam is still a Prince, where are the King and/or Queen? Did they abandon their selfish and spoiled son to run part of the kingdom while they moved on elsewhere? Did they die before the spell, but Adam was too self-involved to notice? In any case, Adam is clearly left alone, with no family to speak of other than his faithful servants.


Finally, here's an example of a father and son pair that isn't completely shrouded in tearjerking calamities. Sure, Prince Charming's dad is a little pushy, planning a party for his son to meet a new wife and begging for grandkids, but all he wants is a bigger family. True, it's a little annoying, but once you see the many portraits of Charming's childhood, you realize that this proud papa really enjoyed raising his kid, and he just wants the same happiness for him as an adult.

But, of course, Charming's mother has died, so it's not all horse rides and princely duties for these two.


Anna and Elsa's home life in Arendelle was full of fun and frolicking until two major events permanently altered their childhoods. First, Elsa is forced to control her power over ice and snow, and second, their parents both die in a shipwreck.

The most traumatizing part of this portrait is just how sad Elsa looks. This is before her parents are gone, but she looks absolutely devastated. With their sudden deaths, she will never get a chance to show them how she controlled her powers AND learned how to be a supportive, loving sister. Her memory of her parents will always be marred by their stern commands that made her doubt herself, and that is just too much for me to handle.

Lilo & Stitch

Lilo and Nani's parents tragically died in a car accident, leaving Nani to grow up extremely quickly and raise her young little sister. Much of the movie is spent showing their parents' amazing influence through Lilo, as she pretty much raises Stitch to obey the culture of 'Ohana. As she puts it, "'Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind—or forgotten."

Lilo's few family portraits are her most prized possessions, and the not-so-distant memory of her parents often makes a dark cloud over their home. And instantly leads me to get choked up.


How can you not end a list about loss with the heartbreaking opening sequence from Up? This movie goes through their whole adventurous, wonderful life in fifteen minutes, and then sends a bulldozer right through our hearts when Carl is left alone following Ellie's death.

For his touching reminders of his amazing wife, he goes to My Adventure Book, his scrapbook of their life together that contains nostalgic photos like this one. I mean, is it really any wonder that this guy is such a grump after losing the only person who ever understood him. Leave it to Disney/Pixar to make grown adults cry at an animated movie.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some important business that needs my attention.

If you can keep it together to comment, how did you feel about these Disney family portraits?


Do you feel personally invested in tragic Disney backstories?


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