For starters, someone must be dead.  That’s the golden rule to remember here.  And if that someone is mom, you’ve got a hit on your hands.  Nanny McPhee.  Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.  Cinderella.  Annie.  Harry Potter.  Jumanji.  Beauty and the Beast.  The Game Plan.  Nim’s Island.  Bambi.  Snow White.  Fly Away Home. Hannah Montana. What do they all have in common?  That’s right.  A musical score.  Oh, and a dead mom.

Fill your screenplay with adorable creatures.  Animated, not animated – doesn’t matter.  Maybe they talk.  Maybe not.  Just have them.  But no cats.

And for the love of all things Jiminy Cricket do not kill off your adorable creature!  We’ve come a long way since Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller. Those films are relics of a bygone era.  We just don’t kill off animals anymore.  It’s upsetting.  No one likes to see that.

The only exception would be, of course, if your adorable little creature is a mom.  Then you can kill off your adorable creature.  Think Finding Nemo. Think carnage in the opening sequence.  Imagine those teary-eyed little children watching from between their wee little hands squashing their little faces at the heart-smashing tragedy of it all.  Now imagine their gazes drifting over to their mothers beside them as they think, “Wait a second.  You mean … I could lose you?  Forever and ever?  Out of the blue?  All of the sudden?  Nooooo!”  You’ve just made fans for life.

All right, all right.  If you must have a cat, the cat can be the villain or the companion of a villain.  But that’s it.  No strutting around looking cute.  Villainy only.

Repeat after me: flatulence is always funny.  Always.  It doesn’t even need a set-up.  That’s the beauty of it!  And your children’s movie must have it.  Or belching.  Please, though, do not involve the mom in the flatulence or belching because mom is not here to be funny.  Are you saying you think death is funny?

Dead within fifteen minutes of the opening credits, recently dead, long dead, doesn’t matter as long as you remember that one or both parents must go.  We can’t have our lead characters running around under the protective supervision of a couple of doting parents without even an inkling that said parents could be horrifically ripped from their lives at any given moment.  Trust me.  The people who want to see that kind of thing don’t go to the movies.  They’re too busy holed up at home knitting and playing Jenga and watching “Little House on the Prairie” marathons.

So, let’s say that despite everything you’ve learned here you still insist on including a mom in your children’s movie.  Fine, but I would advise you under such circumstances to make sure that only mom’s legs are visible.  As in Toy Story.  Possibly hands, if need be.  Might I suggest she be a faint voice from afar, like the humming of a refrigerator in the kitchen.  Three houses down.  Listen, I’m warning you.  If your mom has more presence than the wallpaper, you can forget about developing any conflicts because she can solve a problem faster than you can say “half pint.”  Even better, have mom abandon the central character early on, a la Meet the Robinsons or Enchanted, and then go away forever.  As if she were dead.

And I will make this final allowance for you:  if you’d like to make it seem like your adorable creature is dead for at least five minutes, maybe ten, this would be acceptable.  Like in Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Over the Hedge, or G-Force.  Bring your young audience to the brink of tears and then reassure them by showing them the creature was just playing dead.  Make them laugh about it, even.  This is a good time for that fart joke.  Let them know everything is just fine.  Unless we’re talking about mom.  Mom is dead, and they’re just going to have to deal with it.

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TNB Arts and Culture Editor CYNTHIA HAWKINS teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Most of what she thinks she knows comes from movies, including how to tango, how to take someone down with a ballpoint pen, how to curse in French, and how to catch a moving train. Her work, on movies and otherwise, has appeared in literary journals and magazines such as ESPN the Magazine, Parent:Wise Magazine, The Good Men Project, New World Writing, Strange Horizons, and numerous alternative weeklies and anthologies. You can find Cynthia on Twitter and at cynthiahawkins.net.

37 responses to “So You Want to Write a Screenplay for a Children’s Movie”

  1. It’s about time someone pointed this out. I think Disney has something against mothers in particular, there’s The Rescuers, Beauty and the Beast, they even managed to squeeze in a gratuitous dead mom into Pocahontas. Anyway, hilarious piece, thanks for calling out this rampant dead parent problem.

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      Thanks! I’d forgotten about The Rescuers and Pocahontas — I’m sure there are more as well. Someone should make a definitive list … with a special section for “gratuitous dead mom.” Ha! I haven’t seen Disney’s Princess and the Frog yet. I wonder what the mom status is there?

  2. New Orleans Lady says:

    So funny and so true. Bambi scarred me for LIFE! My son, Aiden, still hasn’t seen it and I’m going to keep it that way until after he starts school. He’s having enough reservations as it is about leaving me for an entire day. I think the thought of losing me all together would cause sheer panick. Then, I will end up home-schooling. Nooooo!

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      Ha! My daughter’s nine now, but when she was little I’d always forward through the scene in which Bambi’s mom gets shot. When she’d ask later where the mom went, I’d always say something like, “Oh, she just went on an errand. She comes back after the movie’s over.” Thanks for reading!

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Bambi scarred me. As did Dumbo, when his mom tries to protect him and gets all roughed up.

      I still can’t watch The Lion King and I was 16 years old when that came out, man.

      • angela says:

        omg, becky, Dumbo made me cry as a kid. i’d probably cry now too.

        • Becky says:

          Our mothers never knew. It was not their fault. That was normal kid fare.

          That’s what I keep telling myself. And my mother, when I tell her how those movies scarred me and she gasps and covers her mouth and feels bad.

          “Not your fault, ma, that you showed me this horrific tale of separation and abuse and ridicule and death.”

          Okay, I don’t really say that to her. Or maybe I did once.

  3. Excellent post!

    More dead mom movies: Finding Nemo, The Little Mermaid . . . uh, there is a list somewhere in my head but I’m having a hard time retrieving it now! I’ve always found this fascinating, too. But makes sense. Kill the mom and you have a very vulnerable protagonist with no one, or some scatterbrain, watching out for him/her.

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      Thanks! True, true. My feeble mind is also trying to remember a Chuck Palahniuk quote sort of on this subject. I don’t remember it exactly, but it’s something like … to create a work that will be remembered as a classic you must break your audiences’ hearts.

      • Yes, yes indeed. And here’s is Kafka’s famous quote:

        “What we must have are those books that come on us like ill fortune, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”

        I love this one because I do think that the reason some of us write poorly some of the time is that we are too afraid to crack things open. We’re skating on the ice-covered sea, hoping we’ll glide across the story and that everyone will smile at us. But what we always need to do is crack it open and feel what ever it is that’s frozen in there.

        • Cynthia Hawkins says:

          Ooh, nicely put! I love that. And that quote!

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Oof. Kafka’s always such a downer, no?

        • dwoz says:

          the main reason I write poorly, is that I reflexively insert a comma, every time my brain inhales.

        • I insert commas with every breath, too. I never learned the comma rules in school. We were studying starfish and tide pools and sea anemones.

          And Kafka, yes, a downer. But such a great, amazing, brilliant downer. So down he actually sort of cracks me up. So down he’s up. Although I’m probably the only one with that reaction.

        • dwoz says:

          jessica, it’s a lot like puns/bad jokes. The scale of good/bad for puns wraps around…the worse it gets, the farther it wraps back around toward good. Some jokes are so bad, just SO DAMN BAD that they somehow are good again.

          Weirdest thing.

  4. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Hey, Dads had a 10,000 year old head start. I submit to the court Frazier’s Golden Bough 😉

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      🙂 I have been trying to think of a witty come-back to that one all afternoon, and all I’ve got is an emoticon!

  5. dwoz says:

    But just because you have a dead mom doesn’t mean you’re going to get out of paying a proper Equity salary for her role.

    She’s gonna have to do the cameo dream sequence where she regurgitates a “just follow your heart” message. Hopefully just by “glowing” so you only have to pay for a non-speaking extra.

  6. Matt says:

    I was just talking with someone the other day how kid’s films (from the U.S., at least) just aren’t creepy anymore. Everything’s brightly colored, everyone’s out having an adventure, the villain is often more bafoonish than anything else, and in the end everything will be okay. Sanitized. One of the things Walt Disney seemed to understand was that a little bit of scary injected into these films was a good thing. I’ll bet he was a little more cogent about the “killing of the mothers” than some of those who’ve inherited his mantle.

    Might also be the reason I liked The Secret of N.I.M.H. so much: not only does the mother survive, she’s the hero, AND the movie is creepy as all get out. The owl in the dead forest? The injection sequence? Scared me witless as a little kid, in the best way possible.

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      Bafoonish villains — blasphemy! I love a good villain, probably more than I should, so I really don’t like the dumbing down of them. Despicable Me? Yeesh.

      I thought Coraline (though based on the book– like most of these, actually, so maybe I should be talking about books …) had terrific creep factor *and* a mom … plus the “other mother.” Oh, and of course there’s The Incredibles. Not creepy but parent-friendly.

  7. Joe Daly says:

    Cynthia, this was one of those pieces where I read the lede, and dove right in. No further scanning of the page after that.

    Funny, but I hated when Ol’ Yeller died, thought it cruel and unnecessary when Babmi’s mother went to the great forest in the sky, and became near-inconsolable when the little kid died from a bee sting in that book where the little kid dies from the bee sting.

    But you’re right- those are the ones I remember. Often. Then again, I’m a sucker for that stuff…

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      Thanks Joe! Have you seen UP? I’m still mad at that one for making me cry so much … and in public. Not even the 3-D glasses could disguise it. And as bad off as I was, my daughter was worse. She’ll never forget *that* movie. I’m convinced its sob factor is what garnered it the Academy Award when Fantastic Mr. Fox truly earned it — with an awesome live mom and everything.

  8. Marni Grossman says:

    It’s seems like a prerequisite for a children’s movie these days is 3-D. Which drives me crazy. Turns me into a cranky old man, shaking his fist. “In my day, all we needed was two dimensions. Also, we walked two miles to school over a road of broken glass.”

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      I know! I don’t get 3-D at all. By which I mean it doesn’t look 3-D to me and gives me a headache, and I’m convinced it must be because I’m a “cranky old man.”

  9. Jacqui says:

    They don’t just diss mother’s. Look at Shrek 3. Actually, look away.

    My daughters (and I) could not work out why, when the king/frog died, the choices were Shrek or Justin Timberlake. Fiona was a strong chick. She could be queen, my girls said. But, pregnant, she got left behind to bicker with the other princesses. The boys got to go and have the adventure. Then they vanquished the golden haired villain, Justin got the crown and Fiona got to go back to the swamp with triplets. Nice!

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      I don’t know how I’ve escaped it, but I haven’t seen any of the Shreks. So, I’m glad for your explanation. And, wow! I thought the whole point of Shrek was to subvert the old-school stereotypes and so forth, but apparently not for Fiona! An NPR “MonkeySee” blogger, when Up! came out, wrote a great piece on how and why the main protagonists in kid movies are never girls … unless the girl is a princess. That’s a whole other subject I could gripe about in a satire!

  10. Dana says:

    Too true Cynthia! All those dead mothers! Even Dorothy didn’t have parents.
    Where the Red Fern Grows – ouch – instant flashback.

    Matt — I don’t know if the Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is supposed to be a kids movie, but it’s pretty dark – and a total feast for the eyes.

    I was trying to think of some kids movies that broke your rules Cynthia, but not having kids there aren’t all that many that I’ve seen. Thanks for the reminder about UP and Fantastic Mr. Fox – I definitely want to see both of them.

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      You know, one reason I love Fantastic Mr. Fox in particular is because it felt like Wes Anderson didn’t set out to make a kid’s movie … just a good movie. Of course, the problem with that is it meant my daughter thought it was boring *sigh.* I hate to admit it, but I fear there’s a reason those rules are the rules — because they work.

  11. angela says:

    that’s really interesting that so many kids’ movies have dead moms. i wonder why that is? does the adventure replace the dead mother? do all the writers have mommy complexes and need to go on journeys to rectify that emotional hole?

    i was trying to think of non-western kids’ movies and the only ones i came up with are Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, which don’t involve dead moms, and are far trippier and seemingly random than the usual Western fare.

    • Becky says:

      The tradition of dead moms in Western culture is long and storied. Think folklore. Think Cinderella, think Sleeping Beauty, think…

      Any of them. Moms are the last line of defense. Moms are it. There can be no adventure with a mom because Mom would never allow it. Something has to happen to Mom so that she’s not there to stop things from happening.

      • Cynthia Hawkins says:

        Alas, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle are the extent of my non-western kid movie experiences as well … I think. Interesting though! I might have to have a non-Western film fest one weekend to explore the differences. Netflix queue, here I come …

        Becky, I think you’re right! I had a comment for you up the chain and now it’s gone??? Or maybe I just commented back in my head? And now I can’t remember what brilliant thing I’d said. It’s been a long, long week. But do go say something smart to Uche for me about dads and the Golden Bough! 🙂

        • Becky says:

          Being married to a Hawaiian guy, I married into all kinds of unanticipated cultural relativity. Eastern (and polynesian is Eastern in origin) cultures are way more interested in what dad is up to. I have a huge collection of Hawaiian/Asian children’s books, and they’re all about missing dads.

  12. Jude says:

    Old Yeller – oh that was too sad. I saw it when I was a young ‘un and I must have cried a bucket of tears for days and days after. I still have to look away if I detect any form of violence happening to an animal. Mom’s being killed off though… different story.

    It’s not just kid’s movies this happens in – the recent film The Road is a good example. In the book, she’s not there and it’s only in flashbacks that we find out she took her own life because she couldn’t bear what was happening. Written by a man, I’m not sure if this rings true, because as a mother there is a primal instinct that wants to protect her children first and foremost.

    Oh and by the way, we in NZ have a few rules regarding writing children’s books (which I guess may apply to screenplays also) – one of which is there is to be no bare feet in the pictures!

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      Old Yeller so traumatized me I’ve never seen it again. I barely remember it, actually. I just remember the tears!

      No bare feet — that’s hilarious!

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