Disney films are known for being cute, funny, heartwarming...and soul-crushingly sad.
Bambi, The Lion King, Finding Nemo, Up, Frozen... Disney films have a long history of loss and tragedy.
According to Hahn, the main narrative reason for killing off a parent is practical.
The movies are 80 or 90 minutes long, and Disney films are about growing up. They're about that day in your life when you have to accept responsibility.
Simba ran away from home but had to come back. In shorthand, it's much quicker to have characters grow up when you bump off their parents. Bambi's mother gets killed, so he has to grow up. Belle only has a father, but he gets lost, so she has to step into that position. It's a story shorthand.
But there is a second, far more tragic reason:
The other reason—and this is really odd—Walt Disney, in the early 1940s, when he was still living at this house, also bought a house for his mom and dad to move into. He had the studio guys come over and fix the furnace, but when his mom and dad moved in, the furnace leaked and his mother died.
The housekeeper came in the next morning and pulled his mother and father out on the front lawn. His father was sick and went to the hospital, but his mother died. He never would talk about it, nobody ever does. He never spoke about that time because he personally felt responsible because he had become so successful that he said, 'Let me buy you a house.'
Hahn's story is corroborated in the biography Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler.
In it, Gabler says:
As soon as [Disney's parents] Elias and Flora moved in, the heating system began to malfunction. "We better get this furnace fixed or else some morning we'll wake up and find ourselves dead," Flora was said to have told her housekeeper, Alma Smith.
On the morning of November 26, 1938, Flora went to the bathroom adjoining her bedroom. When she didn't return, Elias got up to investigate and found her collapsed on the bathroom floor. Feeling overcome himself, he staggered out into the hallway and fainted. [Alma Smith] and a neighbor dragged Flora and Elias down the stairs and outside, and the neighbor administered artificial respiration. Elias revived. Flora did not. She died of carbon monoxide poisoning from the defective heater.
According to the book, a lid on the air intake had slipped, recirculating the exhaust into the house. Walt was inconsolable:
It may have been the most shattering moment of Walt Disney's life—a misery deepened no doubt by the fact that she had died in the new home Walt had given her, and by the culpability of his own workmen. (A report on the furnace ordered by Roy determined that the "installation of the furnace showed either a complete lack of knowledge of the requirements of the furnace or a flagrant disregard of these conditions if they were known.")
Hahn's theory is that the reason characters such as Bambi and Cinderella were motherless is that Disney was channelling his grief into his work.
He told Glamour:
There's a theory, and I'm not a psychologist, but he was really haunted by that. That idea that he really contributed to his mom's death was really tragic. If you dig, you can read about it. It's not a secret within their family, but it's just a tragedy that is so difficult to even talk about. It helps to understand the man a little bit more.
To me, it humanizes Walt. He was devastated by that, as anyone would be.