Disney death fake-outs exposed!

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Spoiler Alert:  This posting contains crucial plot spoilers for the films SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES (1937), DUMBO (1941), BAMBI (1942), CINDERELLA (1950), OLD YELLER (1957), LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955),  THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE (1956), SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959), 101 DALMATIONS (1961), THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967) and SCANDALOUS JOHN (1971).  Read at your own peril!

When you get on the subject of deaths in Walt Disney movies (and if you grew up on Disney product of the 1950s and 60s, you really couldn’t escape the specter of the Grim Reaper, who seemed to leapfrog from film to film, poised to leaven your childlike joy and wonder with shock and sadness), one that comes up right away is the shooting of Bambi’s mother or the shooting of Old Yeller but for me those killings pale in comparison to the death of Dumbo’s mother.  You may remember the scene: falsely accused of being a ‘mad elephant,’ Dumbo’s Mom is chained and stuffed into a too-small circus wagon, to be carted off for execution.  In their final moments together, she reaches her trunk out through the bars of her cage and cradles little Dumbo, swinging him as she sings him a comforting song.  God, it’s killer.  I’m welling up now thinking about it.  To a 10 year-old kid (hell, to a 47 year-old man), this cruel separation of mother and child is about as bad as it gets. 

The only thing is, Dumbo’s mother doesn’t die.  We don’t see her for most of the movie and assume she’s dead (there were not then, nor do I think there are now, rehabilitation centers for mad elephants) and then, BLAMMO, there she is.  Mother and grown son reunited.  Order restored.  Happy ending!  Yeahhhh… kinda.  Watch the movie again and that fake-out farewell scene is still as traumatic as it was when you went into the thing blind. 

Walt Disney, et al, were always doing this kind of thing.  Death had free range over at Buena Vista but the deaths were usually reserved for villains.  The Evil Queen of SNOW WHITE, Maleficent from SLEEPING BEAUTY, that hateful cat from CINDERELLA; occasionally, an innocent would buy it – in addition to those mentioned above, I’m thinking of Fess Parker and his comrades in THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE, the little dog who walks the green mile in LADY AND THE TRAMP to be put down at the dog pound, and Brian Keith in SCANDALOUS JOHN (shot in the back!).  But when I go back and re-watch these things it’s not the actual (movie) deaths that get me… it’s the bogus ones.  Because when he was pulling the wool over our eyes, Uncle Walt didn’t blink.  He didn’t cut away (as he did to depict the death of Bambi’s mother) to soften the blow, but laid it on with a trowel.

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Remember the fate of old Trusty (voice of Bill Baucom) in LADY AND THE TRAMP?  Racing to delay the horse-drawn wagon porting a wrongly-accused Tramp (voice of Larry Roberts) to the dog pound where he faces certain and immediate death (yeah, Disney recycled a lot), Trusty puts himself in front of the conveyance, causing it to topple and fall, crushing him to death.  Or so it seems.

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His little buddy Jock (voice of Bill Thompson) even rushes to his side, sniffs at his lifeless form and …

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… howls pitiably as a gesture of profound grief.  It’s a remarkably grim set-up coming as it does on the heels of a thrilling chase and a snatched-from-the-jaws-of-death denoument.  Add to that, it’s raining.

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But come Christmas Day, there’s old Trusty, leg in a cast but alive and well and back in the game.  I don’t put Trusty’s seeming death on an emotional par with that of Dumbo’s mother but still… Uncle Walt… what up with this?  And like an annoying uncle who thinks his joy buzzer is comic gold, Disney and his conspirators kept pulling this one.  And we kept falling for it!  In 101 DALMATIONS, the happy birth of 15 puppies is a joyous moment for four-legged narrator Pongo (voice of Rod Taylor ) and his bitch Perdita (voice of Cate Bauer).  That is until…

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… one of the pups is stillborn.  As Nanny (voice of Martha Wentworth) dabs a tear and Pongo looks on incomprehensively, Roger (voice of Ben Wright) mumbles something like “it’s just one of those things” as he cradles the lifeless newborn.  And then, a propos of nothing, Roger gets an idea…

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… and commences to rub the swaddled critter vigorously (as the flash of lightning and cracking of thunder from without threaten to turn this curious scene into a moment from FRANKENSTEIN) until…

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… the little darling comes back to life.  Happy ending!  Except that it happens, like, half an hour into the thing, which means there’s still 45 minutes of drama to go.  And again I hasten to add that this odd little death-and-resurrection scene plunked down into 101 DALMATIONS was never, for me, a soul-scarring/life altering experience.  It’s just odd that Disney kept insisting on faking us out with the apparent deaths of adorable little animals.  And all the while saving the best worst for last.

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And now we come to the death of Baloo.  In the exciting, scary climax of THE JUNGLE BOOK, Baloo the Bear (voice of Phil Harris) comes to the rescue of wild child Mowgli (voice of Bruce Reitherman, son of the director Wolfgang Reitherman), who has fallen into the clutches of the malevolent tiger Shere Khan (voice of George Sanders).  Grabbing “Old Stripes” by the tail, Baloo allows Mowgli to scramble to safety while he takes the brunt of the tiger’s anger.  Reitherman frames the action in close cuts as Shere Khan slashes at Baloo with his fearsome claws, leaving him a (that word again) lifeless lump.

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“Baloo, get up,” implores a horrified Mowgli, cradling the fallen bear’s enormous head in his tiny hands.  “Oh, please get up.”  It’s THE CHAMP all over again!  And it’s raining again!  And you’d think Disney and his director would leave it at that, but no…

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… the scene just goes on and on, with the rain and Mowgli hugging Baloo, filling his little fists with the great bear’s hair as if willing him to live again…

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… as Bagheera the panther (voice of Sebastian Cabot) sidles into the shot to comfort Mowgli:  “Greater love hath no one than he who lays down his life for his friend,” says Bageera, at his most Churchillian.  “Whenever great deeds are remembered in this jungle, one name will stand above all others… our friend, Baloo the bear.”  I have no memory of what I thought about this grim scene when I first saw it as a 6 or 7 year-old but 40 years on and after countless repeat viewings I’m nearly in cardiac arrest when, astonishingly, magically, infuriatingly…

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… Baloo opens his eyes.  So not dead!  “I was just takin’ five,” he tells Mowgli.  “You know, playin’ it cool.”  (Who does he think he is, Lee Marvin?)  While Bagheera is outraged (he calls Baloo a “four-flusher” – you probably didn’t know the fauna of Southeast Asia played poker), Mowgli is understandably overjoyed.

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Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy THE JUNGLE BOOK ends on an upnote, glad that Baloo (“that shiftless, two-bit jungle bum”) lives to laugh and scat and partake of the bear necessities for another day but again I can’t say that the happy ending really exorcises the demons spawned by this deeply upsetting fake death.  It’s almost as if Disney and his collaborators were trying to recreate the dark magic of their DUMBO bait-and-switch with a father figure and it took them over a quarter of a century to get it right.  This scene does a number on me – my 3 year-old daughter takes it in stoically while I’m squirting brine horizontally out of both eyes.  Seriously, for the last five minutes of this movie it’s as if I’m watching through an aquarium.

Walt Disney died during production of THE JUNGLE BOOK, which was the last feature from his studio that he oversaw personally.  Though the Disney death toll continued to escalate into the new millenium, I can’t for the life of me recall of a single fake death in all the films that have followed… so maybe that gag, that propensity, that fetish died with him.  Of course, there are those who say Disney isn’t dead at all but preserved in cryogenic suspended animation, awaiting a cure for the circulatory malady that took him down in December 1966 at the age of 65.  I’ve heard that urban myth all my life but in it I never placed much faith.  Yet now that I think about it, in the context of all this death fakery, the possibility does make a kind of eerie sense, doesn’t it?

22 Responses Disney death fake-outs exposed!
Posted By Jenni, St. Louis : December 2, 2008 8:45 pm

The separation of Mama Elephant and her son, Dumbo, always causes me to tear up. My kids love this animated movie, and several of them, probably at age 3, had to watch it over and over and over…!

I have often thought that Dumbo couldn’t be made in today’s culture, i.e. Dumbo getting drunk, albeit accidentally, and the depiction of the crows, portraying a stereotype best forgotten.

We just watched Wall-E, and it too has a worrisome, death is possible( or should I say, destruction of machines/shooting out into space with no protective spaceship or pod) aspect to it. No lost parent, but a lonely little robot who just wants someone to love,and/or connect with. I thought when I saw it this summer that it’s a movie about a robot, I won’t cry. Wrong! I teared up and it is a touching story; our family really liked it.

Posted By Jenni, St. Louis : December 2, 2008 8:45 pm

The separation of Mama Elephant and her son, Dumbo, always causes me to tear up. My kids love this animated movie, and several of them, probably at age 3, had to watch it over and over and over…!

I have often thought that Dumbo couldn’t be made in today’s culture, i.e. Dumbo getting drunk, albeit accidentally, and the depiction of the crows, portraying a stereotype best forgotten.

We just watched Wall-E, and it too has a worrisome, death is possible( or should I say, destruction of machines/shooting out into space with no protective spaceship or pod) aspect to it. No lost parent, but a lonely little robot who just wants someone to love,and/or connect with. I thought when I saw it this summer that it’s a movie about a robot, I won’t cry. Wrong! I teared up and it is a touching story; our family really liked it.

Posted By Angela : December 3, 2008 9:03 am

I was really sad when Mufasa died on the Lion King. That broke my heart, too.

Posted By Angela : December 3, 2008 9:03 am

I was really sad when Mufasa died on the Lion King. That broke my heart, too.

Posted By Erika : December 3, 2008 1:07 pm

I think you may have blocked out the ‘fake deaths’ because you were so traumatized as a child. They continued on well after Disney’s death.

In Robin Hood, poor Robin falls into the moat with arrows through his hat. It’s only after Little John grows sad that we find Robin survived. In the Fox & the Hound (a movie I still have a hard time watching because of this scene) we see Tod the fox fall to ‘his death’ off a waterfall after battling a bear. His best friend, Copper, finds him alive at the bottom, but only after we’ve been treated to a moment of horror.

In The Great Mouse Detective, Basil of Baker Street is yanked by the evil Ratigan off his balloon platform to fall ‘to his death’. Again, we have a five second pause before he’s revealed to be alive and well and hanging on to a flying contraption.

Now, those were offscreen–but one of the best on-screen fake deaths is the only Oscar Nominated animated film–Beauty & the Beast. Though I don’t think anyone believed he was really DEAD, the Beast did fall ‘unconscious’ from his wounds until Belle whispered she loved him (cue the happy magical transformation into good-looking prince).

And as mentioned above, the death on the Lion King about overshadows everything else. It was bad enough to see Mufasa murdered by Scar and fall into the stampede, but then to see his body approached and cuddled by traumatized little Simba? Yikes! I get teary even now!

Posted By Erika : December 3, 2008 1:07 pm

I think you may have blocked out the ‘fake deaths’ because you were so traumatized as a child. They continued on well after Disney’s death.

In Robin Hood, poor Robin falls into the moat with arrows through his hat. It’s only after Little John grows sad that we find Robin survived. In the Fox & the Hound (a movie I still have a hard time watching because of this scene) we see Tod the fox fall to ‘his death’ off a waterfall after battling a bear. His best friend, Copper, finds him alive at the bottom, but only after we’ve been treated to a moment of horror.

In The Great Mouse Detective, Basil of Baker Street is yanked by the evil Ratigan off his balloon platform to fall ‘to his death’. Again, we have a five second pause before he’s revealed to be alive and well and hanging on to a flying contraption.

Now, those were offscreen–but one of the best on-screen fake deaths is the only Oscar Nominated animated film–Beauty & the Beast. Though I don’t think anyone believed he was really DEAD, the Beast did fall ‘unconscious’ from his wounds until Belle whispered she loved him (cue the happy magical transformation into good-looking prince).

And as mentioned above, the death on the Lion King about overshadows everything else. It was bad enough to see Mufasa murdered by Scar and fall into the stampede, but then to see his body approached and cuddled by traumatized little Simba? Yikes! I get teary even now!

Posted By Al Lowe : December 3, 2008 3:37 pm

A brilliant post. Thank you.

Posted By Al Lowe : December 3, 2008 3:37 pm

A brilliant post. Thank you.

Posted By Tiffany : December 4, 2008 10:34 am

I often laugh at the irony of Dumbo; the minute that Betty Noyes sings “Baby Mine, don’t you cry…..” that’s exactly what your start doing!

Posted By Tiffany : December 4, 2008 10:34 am

I often laugh at the irony of Dumbo; the minute that Betty Noyes sings “Baby Mine, don’t you cry…..” that’s exactly what your start doing!

Posted By mitzi : December 7, 2008 11:53 pm

Dumbo’s mother was not killed. She was riding in the back of a train in luxury at the end of the movie. The movie did have a happy ending with a living mother. I don’t know why anyone would want to misrepresent the plot-just to make a point, even if it isn’t true?

Posted By mitzi : December 7, 2008 11:53 pm

Dumbo’s mother was not killed. She was riding in the back of a train in luxury at the end of the movie. The movie did have a happy ending with a living mother. I don’t know why anyone would want to misrepresent the plot-just to make a point, even if it isn’t true?

Posted By mawnck : December 8, 2008 2:56 pm

A few notes: I don’t recall Dumbo’s mother being sentenced to death. Didn’t they just lock her up? What do you do with a dead elephant anyway?

Trusty DID die in the original script of Lady and the Tramp. It was Peggy Lee (who wrote the score and voiced Peg) that pitched a fit and got them to change the ending.

The one that always gets me is Sleeping Beauty, where the good fairies carry on like she’s dead even though they know darn well she ain’t.

You wanna see a good Disney death? Check out “Willie the Operatic Whale” in Make Mine Music. He gets harpooned. On camera. Doesn’t come back. The end.

Posted By mawnck : December 8, 2008 2:56 pm

A few notes: I don’t recall Dumbo’s mother being sentenced to death. Didn’t they just lock her up? What do you do with a dead elephant anyway?

Trusty DID die in the original script of Lady and the Tramp. It was Peggy Lee (who wrote the score and voiced Peg) that pitched a fit and got them to change the ending.

The one that always gets me is Sleeping Beauty, where the good fairies carry on like she’s dead even though they know darn well she ain’t.

You wanna see a good Disney death? Check out “Willie the Operatic Whale” in Make Mine Music. He gets harpooned. On camera. Doesn’t come back. The end.

Posted By RHS : December 8, 2008 4:45 pm

Mitzi, dear heart, did you actually read any of my post? Which, I hasten to point out, Al said was “brilliant.”

Posted By RHS : December 8, 2008 4:45 pm

Mitzi, dear heart, did you actually read any of my post? Which, I hasten to point out, Al said was “brilliant.”

Posted By RHS : December 8, 2008 9:08 pm

I don’t recall Dumbo’s mother being sentenced to death. Didn’t they just lock her up? What do you do with a dead elephant anyway?

What do you do with a mad one? Everyone is, of course, within their rights to come to any conclusion not contradicted by the facts of the case but I think it was safe to assume the makers of Dumbo wanted us to believe Dumbo’s mother was going to be put down as a presumed mad elephant (much as would be done with a rabid dog). I refer you to the case of Topsy v. the Circus, 1903.

Posted By RHS : December 8, 2008 9:08 pm

I don’t recall Dumbo’s mother being sentenced to death. Didn’t they just lock her up? What do you do with a dead elephant anyway?

What do you do with a mad one? Everyone is, of course, within their rights to come to any conclusion not contradicted by the facts of the case but I think it was safe to assume the makers of Dumbo wanted us to believe Dumbo’s mother was going to be put down as a presumed mad elephant (much as would be done with a rabid dog). I refer you to the case of Topsy v. the Circus, 1903.

Posted By Molo : December 9, 2008 1:54 pm

My parents took me to a double feature of Disney’s live action animal film “The Legend of Lobo” followed by “Dumbo”. I was around five years old. I don’t remember anything much but the trauma. Something horrible happened in “Lobo” maybe his mom died or he died, I don’t remember exactly and I don’t want to ever watch it again for fear of releasing years of suppressed emotions.

When we finally got to “Dumbo” I was pretty much played out. He was so cute. When they took away his mother and then did the “Baby Mine” number the tears started flowing again. The whole show basically put me through the ringer and amounted to one big crying jag. Gee! Thanks Uncle Walt. In his defense, I was probably an overly sensitive child. My parents were no doubt happy that, having gone through the ringer of emotional distress, I was most likely tired out and ready for bed by the time the end credits roled. Maybe Disney new what he was doing after all. While I don’t want to think about “Lobo”, “Dumbo” has, oddly enough, become my favorite Disney character. I guess the happy ending eventually sank in.

Posted By Molo : December 9, 2008 1:54 pm

My parents took me to a double feature of Disney’s live action animal film “The Legend of Lobo” followed by “Dumbo”. I was around five years old. I don’t remember anything much but the trauma. Something horrible happened in “Lobo” maybe his mom died or he died, I don’t remember exactly and I don’t want to ever watch it again for fear of releasing years of suppressed emotions.

When we finally got to “Dumbo” I was pretty much played out. He was so cute. When they took away his mother and then did the “Baby Mine” number the tears started flowing again. The whole show basically put me through the ringer and amounted to one big crying jag. Gee! Thanks Uncle Walt. In his defense, I was probably an overly sensitive child. My parents were no doubt happy that, having gone through the ringer of emotional distress, I was most likely tired out and ready for bed by the time the end credits roled. Maybe Disney new what he was doing after all. While I don’t want to think about “Lobo”, “Dumbo” has, oddly enough, become my favorite Disney character. I guess the happy ending eventually sank in.

Posted By Joe aka Mongo : December 10, 2008 1:48 pm

hsmith, this blog tugged at the heart strings. I’ve seen most of the Disney films that you mentioned and “Bambi” remains my favorite (the artwork is exceptional).
And of all the sad moments I can’t help but remember the little happy scrappy dog walking to his demise in “The Lady and the Tramp”.

Posted By Joe aka Mongo : December 10, 2008 1:48 pm

hsmith, this blog tugged at the heart strings. I’ve seen most of the Disney films that you mentioned and “Bambi” remains my favorite (the artwork is exceptional).
And of all the sad moments I can’t help but remember the little happy scrappy dog walking to his demise in “The Lady and the Tramp”.

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