How cartoons kill: main characters in kids' animated movies more than twice as likely to die as counterparts in films for adults

Posted on Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Principal characters in children's animated films are more than twice as likely to be killed as those in movies for adults, reveals research from the University of Ottawa and UCL (University College London), published in the Christmas issue of The BMJ.

The findings prompted the authors to describe children's animated films as “rife with death and destruction” with content akin to the “rampant horrors” of popular films with age-restricted ratings.

“Rather than being innocuous and gentler alternatives to typical horror or drama films, children's animated films are, in fact, hotbeds of murder and mayhem,” according to the study led by Dr Ian Colman of the University of Ottawa and Dr James Kirkbride of UCL.

On-screen death and violence can be particularly traumatic for young children, and the impact can be intense and long-lasting. Because of this, many parents will not let their children see the “endemic gore and carnage” typical of films aimed at adult audiences, say the Canadian and UK researchers.

In a bid to assess the amount of violence young children might be exposed to, the researchers analyzed the length of time it takes for key characters to die in the 45 top-grossing children's animated films, released between 1937 (Snow White) and 2013 (Frozen), and rated them as either suitable for a general audience (G) or parental guidance suggested (PG).

They also looked at whether the first on-screen death was a murder or involved a main character's parent.

The study found that two-thirds of the animated films depicted the death of an important character, compared to half of the films intended for adults.

After taking into account total run-time and years since release, main characters in animated films aimed at children were 2.5 times as likely to die as their counterparts in films for adults, and almost three times as likely to be murdered.

Moreover, parents of main characters were more than five times as likely to die in children's animated films as they were in films targeted at adults.

Furthermore, the data suggest that parents, nemeses, and children were more often the first casualties in animated films, whereas the main protagonist was the most likely to be killed in films for adults.

Only animated films in which the main characters were either human or animal were included in the analysis, given the ambiguity as it is not clear if the concept of death among “humanized” objects, such as cars and toys, exists.

Violent content in the animated films was compared with that found in the two top-grossing films for adult audiences released in the same year, excluding those tagged as “action” or “adventure” because these are often marketed to children.

The film genres included horror films, such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose and What Lies Beneath, and thrillers, such as Pulp Fiction, The Departed, and Black Swan.

Grisly deaths in animated films were common: they included shootings in Bambi, Peter Pan, and Pocahontas; stabbings in Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid; and animal attacks in A Bug's Life, The Croods, How to Train Your Dragon, Finding Nemo, and Tarzan.

Notable early screen deaths included Nemo's mother being eaten by a barracuda at 4 minutes, 3 seconds into Finding Nemo; Tarzan's parents being killed by a leopard at 4 minutes, 8 seconds from the beginning of Tarzan; and Cecil Gaines' father being shot in front of him at 6 minutes into The Butler.

The film's genre and the years since the film's release had no bearing on the results: the researchers say that there is no evidence to suggest that the level of violence has changed in children's animated films since the 1937 release of Snow White, in which Snow White's stepmother, the evil queen, is struck by lightning, forced off a cliff, and crushed by a boulder while being chased by seven vengeful dwarves.

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