KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
It's summer - kids are out of school going to the movies. I don't know about you, but I remember exactly where I was when I learned that Bambi's mom had been killed. That movie theater in Anna, Illinois, sitting near the front, crying my face off.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BAMBI")
PAULA WINSLOWE: (As Bambi's Mother) Bambi, quick the thicket.
MCEVERS: But think about it, "Bambi" was just the beginning. A lot of animated films have dead moms. Just ask Sarah Boxer.
SARAH BOXER: "Chicken Little," "The Fox And The Hound," "Beauty And The Beast," "Nemo," "Despicable Me" - the kids start out as orphans. Lilo's mother and father both killed in a car crash. Koda's mother in "Brother Bear." Po's mother in "Kung Fu Panda Two." Arial's mother crushed by a pirate ship in "Little Mermaid" - I think three - and "Ice Age."
MCEVERS: Boxer is a graphic novelist, a critic and a lover of cartoons. She's also a mom. She first noticed all these dead mothers which he started watching kids movies with her 10-year-old son.
BOXER: One of the things I love about animated movies is that you can basically create any fantasy that you want. And what's striking to me is that over and over you get this world without mothers. And, as a mother myself, I sort of take offense.
MCEVERS: Boxer says the dead mother theme has actually been around since long before "Bambi" - from ancient Chinese folktales to "The Brothers Grimm" to Dickens - dead moms seem to be everywhere in fiction. So why?
BOXER: Bruno Bettelheim - he's a child psychologist and he wrote a whole book about "The Grimm" stories and fairy tales in general and how you have to kill off the mother to have a really good plot - to have an adventure story, basically. If the mother's there, there is no story. It's just a, you know, well-adjusted child growing up.
MCEVERS: Sometimes though there is a surprising variation.
BOXER: For instance, take "The Lion King" - in that one actually the mother survives and the father dies.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LION KING")
JEREMY IRONS: (As Scar) Long live the King.
BOXER: But I think the difference in something like "The Lion King" where the father dies is it becomes a major plot point. So I think it's very different where the mother dies and sort of is swept out of the way in order that the plot can begin - which has basically nothing to do with the mother.
MCEVERS: Boxer has noticed another trending kids movies, too - used to be evil stepmothers took the place of dead moms. Now somebody else is stepping in.
BOXER: This is the perfect father and not only a good parent in the maternal sense of being protective - but also kind of a buddy, you know, a playmate somebody who is...
MCEVERS: A bro.
BOXER: A bro. Exactly as in "Bro Bear."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME")
PHIL COLLINS: (Singing) Welcome to our family time. Welcome to our brotherly time.
BOXER: The truth is most families have two parents and there are like four times as many single mother led families as single father led families. But I do think that there is an underlying message that is also coming across which is that, you know, we don't really need mothers. In fact, life might be kind of more fun without them. They're not, you know, calling us down to supper and telling us to clean our rooms or whatever - that it could be a life of pure adventure.
MCEVERS: As a mother that message worries Boxer, especially because kids are watching these movies during their early formative years. She says, families might want to look at movies like "The Incredibles" where mom, dad and the kids were all part of the adventure. Sarah Boxer's article is called "Why Are All The Cartoon Mothers Dead?" It's in this month's Atlantic.