The main cartoon characters in kids programs are more than twice as likely to die as counterparts in films for adults, a study has found.
The findings prompt the researchers to describe cartoons as “rife with death and destruction” with content akin to the “rampant horrors” of popular films for adults given restrictive age 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,” say the study leaders Dr Ian Colman, of the University of Ottawa, and Dr James Kirkbride, of University College London.
On-screen death and violence can be traumatic for young children and the impact can be intense and long lasting.
The Canadian and UK researchers analysed the length of time it takes for key characters to die in the 45 top-grossing children’s cartoons, released between 1937 (Snow White) and 2013 (Frozen), and rated either as suitable for a general audience (G) or with 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 cartoons depicted the death of an important character compared with half of the adult films.
After taking account of total run-time and years since release, children’s main cartoon characters are 2.5 times as likely to die as their counterparts in films for adults, and almost three times as likely to be murdered.
Parents of main characters were more than five times as likely to die in children’s cartoons as they were in films for adults.
Film genres included ‘horror’ 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 cartoons were common: 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 4 minutes 3 seconds into Finding Nemo; Tarzan’s parents being killed by a leopard 4 minutes 8 seconds into Tarzan; and Cecil Gaines’ father being shot in front of him 6 minutes into The Butler.
The researchers say that there is no evidence to suggest that the level of violence has changed in children’s films since Snow White in 1937 when Snow White’s stepmother, the evil queen, was struck by lightning, forced off a cliff and crushed by a boulder while being chased by seven vengeful dwarves.
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