Tim here. Mother’s Day weekend is just around the corner, and not just any Mother’s Day weekend: this year marks the 100th anniversary of the proclamation by President Woodrow Wilson establishing the second Sunday in May as a national day of celebration.
In the honor of the century of mothers that have come and gone since then, and since this is the Film Experience’s dedicated animation corner, I though it might be fun to pay tribute to some of our favorite cartoon mothers. Of course, with motherhood being one of the most death-prone professions in the world of animation (all those Disney princess with just a father, if they’re not orphaned outright… and let us never forget the national childhood trauma that is Bambi), there are fewer such women than we might like. These are three of the best.
Helen Parr (voice: Holly Hunter)
To me, this is the easiest and most obvious answer there could ever be to the question, “who’s the best mom in the history of animated movies?” And not just because of Hunter’s fantastic performance, though I hope I don’t need to mention that it helps. We’re all Hunter fans here, right? Good.
The genius of the character lies in part in the playful metaphor behind her: taking care of her kids, household and husband requires Helen to stretch herself as thin as can be, so what of course would have to be her superpower, but infinite elasticity. But it also lies in how fully Hunter and writer-director Brad Bird commit to making the character more than just a collection of Eisenhower-era feminine tropes. Helen is a wonderfully complicated character, in fact, and complicated women are common in neither American animation nor superhero movies. The subtle interplay of emotions that she expresses over the course of the movie, and the vivid intelligence, wit, and self-reliance that she acts with at all times, makes her a fully-feeling person and not just a reactive wife and mother. And it’s precisely because we get so much more of her inner life that her considerable strength in those roles is so clear and involving.
Chicha (voice: Wendie Malick)
The Emperor’s New Groove
This one can, I think, be fairly described as my against-convention pick. From the Disney movie that everybody underrated until it developed a cult that is sending it merrily on the way to being overrated, Chicha isn’t one of the film’s biggest characters by any stretch (by my count, she comes in at fifth, right ahead of “guy who gets thrown out the window in the opening sequence”), but she makes a hell of an impression in just a couple of scenes as the level-headed focus of reason in a film where just about everything is operating at a high-level pitch of cartoon anarchy. It’s the “wife in a CBS sitcom” role, basically, but Malick’s warmly calming performance and the general excellence of the character’s interactions with her manic kids make her one of the highlights, for me, of a film full of highlights: the mom everybody wants and needs, who lets you goof off and be silly right up until it’s time to knock if off, a gentle totalitarian with a good sense of humor.
Mrs. Jumbo (voice: Verna Felton)
The horrifying moment when Bambi’s mother gets shot is all well and good. But for my money, the single most devastating moment of parent/child agony in the whole of the Disney canon is when the little mute elephant with giant ears goes to the cage where his mother has been locked up as a rampaging beast, and curls up on her trunk, the only part of her body she’s able to reach out to him. Something about the tenderness and cruelty intermingling in that moment is just overwhelming – and the plaintive lullaby "Baby Mine" playing over the scene doesn’t hurt matters one iota.
Here and everywhere else, the relationship between Dumbo and his mother is an absolute triumph of animation, making exemplary use of the Disney animator’s understanding of how to communicate the sensitive and emotion of physical touch through their drawings.
With neither character speaking much at all (Mrs. Jumbo has a single line, naming her child), it falls entirely to the images to create the emotional truth of their relationship, and this is done with amazing skill throughout: from the charming bath scene to the lacerating "Baby Mine," Dumbo is a film that consistently depicts gentle, loving caresses between mother and infant with a sweetness and sensitivity I can think of nowhere else in film. Not just in animation, but in live-action too.
I’ll turn it over to you now. Who are your favorite animated moms? Share with us in comments!