The Top 5 Fatherless Family Movies

Family movies without a father acknowledge a societal void that gets filled with cowboys, astronauts, aliens and senseis

We finally got around to seeing Rise of the Guardians the other night. The adaptation of William Joyce’s Guardians of Childhood children’s book series was clever enough to keep me awake, and the family gave it a seven out of ten. One thing I noticed in my non-nap time was the absence of a father in the brief scenes with Jamie, the last kid in the world who still believes in the Guardians: Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman.

Pitch, the Boogeyman, wants kids to believe in him—to fear him—so he goes on an evil rampage of kids’ hopes and dreams. Jack Frost has been appointed by the Man in the Moon to be a Guardian and fight Pitch, even though kids don’t believe in him either. (Incidentally, both of my kids had never heard of either, so you nailed this demographic, Dreamworks.) Jack Frost and Jamie form an unlikely alliance and youknowwherethisisgoing.

Jamie has a younger sister and a mother, but there is no father. Jack Frost acts as an older brother father figure, giving Jamie someone tangible to believe in. His belief in Jack Frost gives Jack the power to be a Guardian. Like a father. I can’t compare it to the books (blasphemous that we didn’t read it first) because I didn’t know it was a series written by the author of over 50 children’s books who won an Academy Award in 2012 for best animated short, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.

It got me thinking of other family movies with a conspicuous absence of the father. Nearly all your superhero movies feature the dead parent trope: Batman’s were killed by muggers; Spider-Man’s uncle same thing; Superman’s Jor-El blew up and his adoptive father had a grabber; Harry Potter’s parents too, killed by his archnemesis. These murders led to orphanism that subsequently defined the protagonist’s life. But I’m not talking about those. Nor Star Wars, and we all know what happened there.

Here are the top 5 family movies with a conspicuously absent father and how that absence was filled.

5. Where the Wild Things Are

This Spike Jonze/Dave Eggers 2009 adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s 338-word classic is an overblown puffball that blossomed from the book. Max and his Mom are tight but Max is lonely, so when Mom’s date arrives, wolf-clad Max loses his shit and ends up where the Wild Things are.

Father fill-in: He wins over Carol (James Gandolfini), capricious leader of the Wild Things, who spares Max’s life and protects him but also makes great demands on the wily lad. Carol is aloof and emotional, impossible to please. Carol does not have a good relationship with KW and his mates. He is feared more than loved. We know this paternal archetype.

4. The Karate Kid

Whether its Dre Parker(Jaden Smith) moving from Detroit to Beijing (2010) or Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) moving from Jersey to California (1984), both Karate Kids are relocating with their mothers and her new job.  There’s no father. After a series of bullyings and beatdowns for Dreniel-san, a reluctant recluse takes him in.

Father fill-in: Miyagi (Jackie Chan or Pat Moriarty) teaches Dreniel-san how to fight for what he believes in and to stand up for himself. Karate teaches him how to be a man. Wax-on, wax-off is classic father-son film love.

3. Up

This 2009 Pixar film about aging and dreams features Carl, a misanthropic widower stuck in limbo after the death of his wife and lifelong love, whose dreams of adventure were compromised by the vicissitudes of life. In an affecting four-minute montage of Ellie and Carl’s life together, Pixar accomplishes more than most full-length movies on love and life. It’s given a comic injection—and a reminder that this is ostensibly a film marketed to kids—by the arrival of a merit-badge seeking eight-year-old Wilderness Explorer named Russell. Eventually, and incidentally, the two set sail for Ellie and Carl’s lifelong dream destination of “Paradise Falls.” Get it?

Father fill-in: Russell is a do-gooding blunderbuss who stokes the old man’s soft side by admitting that his dad is too busy to help him with his badges. Their harrowing journey through talking dogs and a vainglorious explorer despot bonds them together, and they share in each other’s affection and esteem, serving as filling for what the other is missing, a companion for Carl and a guide for Russell.

2.  E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Stephen Spielberg’s alien fixation hit home with this story of a ten-year-old boy, Elliot, who discovers an alien left behind in the woods behind his California home. His older brother and younger sister don’t believe him, nor does his mother (the only adult’s face seen in the film until the government tracks E.T. down), prompting Elliot to lash out at dinner, hurting his divorced mother by citing the whereabouts of his father and his female companion.

Father fill-in: OK, E.T. is not a stand-in for the absent father. His story, it has been argued, is parallel to Elliot’s, left behind and “every bit as lonely” as his visitor. It’s a coming-of-age divorce story of a boy who becomes a man by taking care of someone. Elliot takes it upon himself to make adult decisions, which includes a scene of Elliot getting vicariously drunk. Despite allegations of plagiarism, Spielberg’s “Rosetta Stone” allegedly was based on his parents’ divorce, and E.T. from an imaginary friend he developed to cope.

1. Toy Story

Andy’s toys are in for a shakeup in their hegemony with the arrival of Buzz Lightyear, a slick new toy with all the bells and whistles that gets the preference of Andy and the rest of the toys over their old pull-string leader, Woody, the sheriff. His leadership challenged and his jealousy piqued, Woody accidentally gets rid of Buzz, setting him on an adventure to retrieve the beloved new toy and restore his place on Andy’s bed.

Father fill-in: Buzz and Woody and all of Andy’s toys. This landmark Pixar movie (1995) is one of my favorite all-time movies, alongside its opposite Finding Nemo, which features a widowed father and motherless son.  From the photographs in the hallway during the opening credits, to Andy’s birthday party, his family’s move, their Christmas in the new house, there is Andy, his sister, his mother and…his toys. (Incidentally, William Joyce of the Guardians worked on Toy Story). No dad. There is more speculation on this missing dad than most other fatherless family films and it seems right, because it is the mission of Andy’s toys to take care of him, to be there for them, giving the toys their motivation and emotional core of the movie.

A family movie featuring a young male protagonist without a father seems like an easy ploy for our sympathy. It’s easy because of how recognizable it is for our culture, to understand what is missing from the family dynamic without overstating it—as is the case in Toy Story and the Guardians. It’s subtle, as if on the surface the absent father doesn’t really matter or is commonplace enough to be life as we know it, yet the emotional core of many of these movies hinge on the protagonist—typically a boy—making an enduring emotional connection with a father figure. Or alien. These movies demonstrate the need for that real connection.

In an insightful essay on the history of paternal abandonment in Hollywood, Stephen D. Greydanus writes in Dads in the Movies at decentfilms.com:

“Hollywood’s ambivalence about fatherhood is deeply entrenched. Ambivalence, though, is not mere hostility; often it is rooted in a real awareness of the irreplaceable importance of fatherhood, and in melancholy or anger over paternal failure in a fallen, broken world. Ambivalence includes love and hope as well as frustration and resentment; even when Hollywood’s fathers let us down, there is often, behind the disappointment, a longing to believe in fathers, a yearning for a father who will not let us down.”

Considering this, the title “Rise of the Guardians” takes on significant meaning.

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About Robert Duffer

Robert Duffer (www.robertduffer.com) is the editor of the Dads & Families section of The Good Men Project. Winner of the Chicago Public Library's writing contest, his work appears in the Chicago Tribune, MAKE Magazine, Chicago Reader, Curbside Splendor, Time Out Chicago, Chicago Public Radio, Annalemma, New City, and other coffee-table favorites like Canadian Builders Quarterly. He teaches creative writing at Columbia College Chicago and lives in the suburbs with his wife, two kids, and their minivan. Follow @DufferRobert, Google+, facebook.

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