Children's cartoons, often seen as innocent films about royalty and furry animals, are "rife with on-screen death and murder," a new study finds.
The significant characters in kids' animated films are 2.5 times more likely to die than those in adult dramas, researchers found. And the victims of those deaths in cartoons are five times more likely to be parents.
"Just because a film has a cute clownfish, a princess or a beautiful baby deer as its main character doesn't necessarily mean that there won't be murder and mayhem," said the study's lead researcher, Ian Colman, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Ottawa, in Canada.
Colman decided to analyze cartoon fatalities after realizing that many of the cartoon movies he watched with his young children had troubling deaths, he said. [Infographic: Deaths in Cartoon Movies Vs. Adult Drama]
For instance, in "The Land Before Time," an animated film about dinosaurs, "the mother of the main character gets savagely attacked and killed by a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the first 5 minutes," Colman told Live Science. "At that point, my daughter was completely hysterical and was begging me to stop the film."
Colman and his colleagues identified the 45 children's animated films with the highest box office grosses and recorded how long into the films the key characters died, their roles in the movie and how they died.
For comparison, the researchers matched each cartoon with the two top-grossing films for adults from the same year, including horror films such as "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" and "What Lies Beneath," and thrillers, including "Pulp Fiction" and "Black Swan."
Cartoon characters have lousy life expectancies, they found. Two-thirds of the cartoons depicted a death, compared with half of the adult dramas. In cartoons, most characters die from animal attacks and falls from high places, whereas common causes of death in other films were gunshots, car accidents and illnesses.
But not all deaths were accidental. Cartoon characters were 2.8 times more likely to be murdered than their counterparts in films for adults, the researchers found. Many of those deaths happen to parents, turning the main characters into orphans, Colman found. But that could be a useful plot point, he added.
The study was published Tuesday (Dec. 16) in the special Christmas edition of the BMJ, a more lighthearted issue of the typically serious medical journal.