The House of Mouse

The House of Mouse
Disney-Colored Death

Alex Spencer | 17 May 2011 15:18
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It was another half-century before Disney built on Bambi's foundations to create a more sophisticated depiction of parental loss in The Lion King. The film consistently presents life as a huge cycle. Mufasa's "One day, all of this will be yours" speeches to his son push this message, introducing his surprisingly zen philosophy of life and death. Even a king's time, he points out, "Rises and falls like the sun."

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The Lion King shows Mufasa plummeting to his death; it cuts away a moment before impact, but doesn't shy away from displaying the body. Once again, the most heartbreaking moment is the child's reaction: Simba tries to wake his father up, until realization finally dawns. He snuggles into his father's unmoving body, placing one huge paw over himself as shelter. The death of a protagonist is rarely as affecting as watching them react to losing a loved one. This is why the Buddies of Far Cry 2, Mass Effect 2's climactic suicide mission, or Aeris in Final Fantasy VII resonate with players.

The Lion King uses the introduction of comic relief characters Timon and Pumbaa to divert young viewers' attention, while their "no worries" dogma helps Simba move past the tragedy. In a series of fades, he goes from child to fully-grown lion. Time, as the saying goes, heals all. Both films skip past the mourning process, implying it in the gaps, and it works: Jumping forward in clumps of years is not just possible in cinema, but effective. In games, this takes control from your hands, as if to remind you this isn't really your story.

One game that does make this work is Jason Rohrer's Passage, which has you walking from left to right, along a thin strip representing the timeline of a couple's life. Eventually, your partner dies, and you're forced to walk on alone. By compressing a lifetime into a single five-minute level, time is emphasized without ever removing your control. It's not dissimilar to Disney's latest addition to this morbid tradition, Up, and in particular its harrowing first few minutes. It introduces two young wannabe adventurers, shy Carl and feisty Ellie, and zooms, in a charming montage, through the couple's life together. With a minimum of fuss, the montage presents what appears to be a miscarriage, Ellie in a hospital bed, and finally Carl alone at a funeral.

Up turns eventually into a thrilling action-adventure romp, but it remains a story driven by Carl's loss. Losing a loved one is a common enough motivation for gaming's heroes, such as Max Payne, in which Max avenges his wife and child's murders. Their bodies are discovered by the player and revisited in nightmarish flashback levels, with corridors stretched out to infinity as the sound of a baby crying loops endlessly. It's fairly primitive, but manages to evoke the right emotions. This doesn't fit quite so neatly, however, with the action-filled content of the game. When Max discovers his wife's body, he has dual pistols drawn, and the player fills the killers with bullets in slow-motion. Up, meanwhile, uses its adventure story - which has its share of action scenes - as a framework to show the grieving and healing process. Carl progresses over the course of the film from a lonely shut-in to a motivated action hero in a way that mirrors K├╝bler-Ross' stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance).

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