Nemo's mother is eaten by a barracuda; Tarzan's parents fall prey to a leopard; and don't forget Bambi's mother – she was gunned down by a hunter. Children's animated films are rife with murder and mayhem.
While such movie videos make popular gifts at Christmas and Hanukkah, parents may want to take precautions when young children first watch these films, which researchers say could traumatize little ones unprepared for characters dying – often in horrible ways.
Their study, entitled Cartoons Kill, is published in the Christmas issue of the BMJ, the journal's annual edition that's typically dedicated to tongue-in-cheek medical research and other light-hearted offerings.
And while this study may be about animated films, its message is deadly serious.
"I think a lot of people have talked about this, the fact that there seems to be a lot of deaths in children's films," said Ian Colman, a mental health epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa. "And we thought, let's have a look at this, and it seems to be timely."
Colman and co-principal investigator James Kirkbride of University College London in Britain used standard epidemiological techniques to analyze how soon into an animated kids' film a significant character meets their end.
The record is held by 2003's Finding Nemo, in which the main character's mother – and dozens of his gestating clown fish siblings – are gobbled up by the voracious undersea predator four minutes into the film.
The research team viewed 45 of the top-grossing animated children's films and twice that number of dramatic movies aimed at adults – 135 in all – to determine in which genres the risk was greatest for a main character or a significant family member or friend to die.
The animated movies made for kids won hands-down.
"We found that death of a significant character was 2.5 times more likely in children's animated films than in dramatic films for adults," said Colman. "We also found that those deaths were 2.8 times more likely to be murder in the children's films and that the victims of the deaths were five times more likely to be parents in the children's films."
Dr. Sandra Mendlowitz, a psychologist in the anxiety program at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, said such violence has been a part of children's animated films and TV cartoons going back many decades.
Saturday morning cartoon staple Wile E. Coyote was repeatedly smashed on the head, blown up or dropped off a mountainside as he pursued the Road Runner, yet he always bounced back.
Mendlowitz said the idea that characters come back to life after such normally fatal acts represents a distortion of reality that doesn't allow children to process the concept of death. Yet movies in which a major character is killed and never seen again can also be troubling for young kids.
"The concept [of death] isn't even begun to be understood until between ages five and seven and is really not solidified in most kids until nine or 10."
"The problem is that if you see a lot of violence you can become very frightened or traumatized or you can become less sensitive to violence, and the longer-term effects are the potential to behave aggressively," said Mendlowitz, who was not involved in the BMJ paper. She advises that a parent should watch animated films with their child so they can monitor and explain any content that spawns confusion or upset.
"I think the message from this study is that just because a film has a cute clown fish, a princess or a beautiful baby deer as a main character, it doesn't mean that there won't be murder and mayhem," Colman said, agreeing that young kids should see a film for the first time with a parent.