In the back-catalogue of animated features from Disney and Pixar, family has been a recurring theme since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs back in 1937. Just about every possible familial relationship has been depicted during the last eight decades, from stepmother and stepdaughter in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, to brothers in Big Hero 6, to great-grandmother and great-grandchild in Coco.
One of the most common familial relationships to be depicted in the vast animated back-catalogue is that of father and child, sometimes as a minor aspect of the narrative, other times as the very heart of the narrative (I’m looking at you, Finding Nemo). In honour of Father’s Day this weekend, this piece shall look at the ten best examples of fathers that Disney and Pixar have given us over the last eight decades, discussing the qualities which made them such good examples, including their approach to fatherhood and what they learnt from it.
10. James (The Princess and the Frog)
James has the least screen time of any of the fathers on this list, appearing only in the prologue of The Princess and the Frog, before dying off-screen at some point in the 14 year period between the prologue and the main body of the narrative. Nevertheless, James is an important character to the film. In the prologue, James is shown to be a devout father, who (despite being a very hardworking man) can only just about provide enough money to make ends meet. What he cannot provide in material goods, however, he more than makes up for in love and affection, and he and Tiana share a dream of opening a restaurant together one day.
In the main body of the narrative, James has been dead for sometime, but his impact upon Tiana is clear to the viewer. His hardworking and motivational approach to life, coupled with his unconditional love for Tiana resulted in Tiana developing a strong work ethic, as she continued to pursue their dream of opening a restaurant in honour of him. Her undying love for him is what motivates her day-by-day to make the best that she can out of life, which is a very important aspect of her character. As such, James is a great example of a father in a Disney film, despite his lack of screen time, as he is not only a loving and devoted father, but he is also a very positive role model, not just to Tiana but to viewers as well.
9. Pacha (The Emperor’s New Groove)
While Pacha is a main character in The Emperor’s New Groove, the main focus of his story arc is his efforts to get Emperor Kuzco (who has been transformed into a llama) back to the palace before Yzma can kill him. However, his familial life is key in establishing and defining the character’s motivations. When Pacha returns home, after being summoned to the palace and learning that Kuzco intends to demolish their village in order to build his summer home (“Kuzcotopia”), it is revealed that he has two small children, and a wife who is pregnant with their third child.
The family does not have much money, but Pacha more than makes up for that with the amount of love and affection which he showers upon his children. Because of his love for his family and heartfelt desire for them to continue living in their ancestral home, Pacha later agrees to help Kuzco on the sole condition that he build “Kuzcotopia” somewhere else. It is not just Pacha’s unconditional love for his family that make him a great example of a father in a Disney film, rather it is also how that was a key informing factor in Kuzco’s redemption arc and perspective change. Kuzco sees that Pacha and family are able to live a happy and fulfilling life together in spite of a lack of material wealth, and seeing this is a key factor in Kuzco realising just how meaningless his lifestyle of egotism and material wealth really is. As such, Pacha’s status as a great example of a father in a Disney film is ultimately cemented by the fact that his approach to fatherhood positively impacts people outside of his family too.
8. Henry (The Good Dinosaur)
The Good Dinosaur is far from a great Pixar film, but that did not stop Henry – father to protagonist Arlo, and his siblings Buck and Libby – becoming one of the finest examples of a father in a Pixar film. Like James in The Princess and the Frog, Henry dies early on in the film, although he does receive considerably more screen time than James did. Henry is depicted as a father who loves his children and is devoted to raising them properly, a father who will encourage them as they grow, but will discipline them when the need arises, which by itself is enough to make him a good example of a parent.
What makes Henry a great example of a parent, however, is his relationship with Arlo, who is the most timid and awkward of his three children. Henry treats Arlo equally to Buck and Libby, and goes out of his way to ensure that Arlo does not feel downtrodden or inadequate next to his siblings. At one point when pursuing a caveboy, a frustrated Henry pushes Arlo too far, in a moment which emphasises that no parent is perfect, that every father will make mistakes in the learning process that is parenthood. Henry does indeed learn from his mistake and is truly sorry for pushing Arlo too far. Moments later, however, Henry makes the ultimate sacrifice as he dies while saving his son from a flash-flood, in a heartbreaking moment which shows paternal love at its strongest.
7. Maurice (Beauty and the Beast)
Father to Belle (the titular Beauty), Maurice is an eccentric inventor whom the village views as an oddball. Belle, however, regards him as brilliant, and the two share a very close and loving bond. From his first scenes on screen, he is depicted as a wonderful father who loves Belle and does everything he can to encourage her and lift her spirits after she is left feeling like a bit of a social outcast by the village. Their bond is absolutely heartwarming and it is apparently clear that Maurice’s entire world is his daughter, which is cemented as fact by his horror and devastation when she chooses to take his place as the Beast’s prisoner.
Following this, Maurice becomes a great example of a selfless parent, as he does not care one iota about the fact that he is frail and in poor health, instead going on a relentless one-man rescue mission to save Belle when the villagers dismiss his claims that she is being held prisoner. His devotion to Belle and her safety at the cost of his own health and wellbeing is a wonderful example of the strength of paternal love, while Maurice is an altogether fantastic example of how, for many people, their child is their whole world over anything else.
6. Geppetto (Pinocchio)
Where Geppetto differs from all of the other fathers on this list – and from any other father in Disney and Pixar, for that matter – is that he is not a biological father, rather he created his son Pinocchio with his bare hands. After carving the little wooden puppet and naming him Pinocchio, the whimsical woodcarver wishes upon a star that Pinocchio would become a real boy. When Pinocchio gains sentience, Geppetto is delighted and immediately becomes a heartwarming example of a father who takes joy in having that role. Furthermore, he intends for Pinocchio to live like any other boy, which is shown the following day when he sends the wooden puppet off to school.
However, Geppetto’s finest qualities as a father shine through when Pinocchio seemingly goes missing (having been tricked into working for Stromboli, who was holding him prisoner), and Geppetto starts a relentless search to find his beloved son. He braves a torrential rainstorm in the middle of the night and even ends up inside the belly of Monstro the whale in his relentless search for the boy. This emphasises that Geppetto is wholly devoted and selfless in his love for his son, as he is willing to put his health and ultimately his life on the line in order to ensure Pinocchio’s safety. While he is a wonderful, heartwarming example of a loving father, the one thing that stops Geppetto from being higher on this list is the fact that he is a little too passive, as evidenced when he and Pinocchio reunite and he does not reprimand the boy for his actions, or pursue the matter of Pinocchio’s donkey ears and tail (a result of the Pleasure Island curse).
5. King Triton (The Little Mermaid)
King Triton is far from a perfect father (which is something that simply does not exist), but he is a devoted one who is desperate to keep his seven daughters safe. However, with his youngest daughter (Princess Ariel, the titular Little Mermaid), he deliberately maintains a tough facade and, rather than be open and vulnerable about why he wants her to stay away from humans, he tries to scare her into staying away from them. While Triton initially comes across as a strict disciplinarian, when Ariel goes missing it becomes clear that he is a truly devoted and loving father and his tough persona really is just a facade. He is devastated over her disappearance and orders for the entire ocean to be searched for her, and also comes to feel sincere remorse for pushing her away, blaming himself for her disappearance.
Here we see in Triton a realistic depiction of fatherhood (bar the whole merman thing) – he has made mistakes, but he has seen the error of his ways and shows a willingness to learn from them in order to be a better father and have a closer relationship with his daughter. He shows that family means more to him than anything when he gives up his crown and allows the sea witch Ursula to transform him into a polyp, in exchange for Ariel’s freedom. After Ursula is defeated, Triton shows just much he has grown as a father and that he has learnt from his experiences when he lets Ariel go and live the life that she wishes to. As such, Triton is a great example of a father in a Disney film as he not only makes mistakes, but he learns from them and as a result becomes a better father, in an honest depiction of parenthood.
4. Pongo (101 Dalmatians)
While dogs tend to be regarded more for their unwavering loyalty to their master, another key trait of their psyche is their overwhelmingly strong protective instincts towards their puppies. Speaking of puppies, there is something really endearing about watching dalmatian Pongo act like an excitable puppy when his mate Perdita gives birth to their litter of 15, which is almost immediately contrasted with Pongo becoming enraged when Cruella De Vil turns up unannounced and tries unsuccessfully to buy the puppies. Pongo sees her as a threat to his children, and in his reaction we see not just a dog’s overwhelmingly strong protective instincts, but a wonderful picture of a father who will not let any harm come to his children.
When the puppies are a little older, it becomes clear that Pongo has settled well into fatherhood as he shares a loving relationship with all of his children, but he is firm with them and ensures that they do not stay up past their bedtime, in an honest and realistic depiction of parenthood. When the Baduns (under Cruella’s orders) kidnap Pongo and Perdita’s children one night, it is not just the dalmatians’ relentless search for the puppies that make Pongo one of the all-time greatest examples of a father in a Disney film, rather it is the result of his search. After getting his children to safety, Pongo also takes a further 84 puppies whom the Baduns had kidnapped under his wing and shows that he is more than happy to raise them as his own. You have to admire a father who not only knows all 15 of his children like the back of his hand (or paw in this case), but is also willing to adopt a further 84 children. If Pongo is not an example of a father with a lot of love to give, then who is?
3. Mufasa (The Lion King)
Of all of the fathers on this list, Mufasa is probably the most iconic as a Disney character, similar to how The Lion King has become one of the most instantly recognisable Disney properties. In his relationship with Simba, Mufasa’s real personality comes through as he ditches the dignified exterior expected of a King in order to play and have fun with the son whom he loves. However, he nevertheless remains a pillar of wisdom and authority as he teaches his son about what it means to be a King, and he is also honest about the fact that he is mortal and that Simba will one day have to adjust to life without him.
The pair share a very close relationship and, as such, Mufasa is visibly hurt when Simba breaks his promise and visits the Elephant Graveyard. However, Mufasa’s love for his son trumps his hurt as he forgives Simba and accepts his son’s apology. Furthermore, here Mufasa shows a willingness to be vulnerable in front of his child (a trait which every father should be willing to have) by admitting that Simba’s trip to the Elephant Graveyard terrified him as he was scared by the thought of losing his son. This is a truly tender scene that gives a raw and honest depiction of what a father-son relationship should be. Mufasa would later show that he was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice when he saved Simba from a deadly wildebeest stampede, only to die moments later when his brother Scar threw him into the middle of the stampede, in one of the most heartbreaking Disney moments of all time. As such, Mufasa became one of the all time great examples of a father in a Disney film, not just because of how much he loved Simba, but because he was willing to be vulnerable with his child and did not hesitate to risk his own life to save Simba’s.
2. Marlin (Finding Nemo)
Many of us would have gone to school with a child whose parents were either overprotective or simply mollycoddled them. With hindsight we look back and wonder whether there was a deeper reason for the parent(s) to behave in that manner, or if they just did not realise what a sheltered upbringing they were imposing upon their child. Marlin is an overprotective parent to Nemo, but understandably so as the prologue depicted Nemo’s mother and siblings being killed in a barracuda attack before Nemo hatched. Marlin resultantly became very cautious and prone to worrying, which did at times annoy Nemo, but the little clownfish recognised that it ultimately came from a place of love, and the two loved each other very much and shared a close bond.
When Nemo is taken by divers, however, Marlin’s love for his son gives him the bravery he needs to overcome his fears, and he begins a relentless search for his son across thousands of miles of ocean, coming face-to-face with sharks, jellyfish and a whale along the way. During this journey, Marlin defies every expectation and is a wonderful example of what a father should be – somebody who will go to any lengths necessary out of love for their child and concern for said child’s safety and wellbeing. Furthermore, the journey is also a learning process for Marlin, who comes to realise that he cannot shelter Nemo, that the little fish has to be given room to grow. As such, after he and Nemo have a heartwarming reunion, he gives Nemo room to grow and, in doing so, becomes one of the finest examples of a father in a Disney or Pixar film. It is not just down to Marlin’s relentless rescue mission, but it is because he learns and grows as a father over the course of the narrative, eventually coming to accept that a key part of being a parent is knowing when to let go.
1. Bob Parr (The Incredibles and Incredibles 2)
It was never going to be easy for Bob to retire from superhero life and become the patriarch of an everyday nuclear family, but he was willing to endure a soul-crushing job in insurance to provide for his wife Helen and their three children. While old habits die hard and it is established that Bob’s regular dabbling in superhero antics since retiring as Mr. Incredible have forced the family to relocate several times, it is clear that he loves his family as he has made a lot of sacrifices for them and he ultimately wants his kids to live normal lives, despite their superpowers. He is left a distraught, broken man when he believes that Syndrome has killed them, and in that moment it becomes clear that, despite his tough facade, Bob’s worst nightmare is losing his wife and children, and that he knows what is most important in life, despite his past mistakes. Naturally, his subsequent reunion with them is a heartwarming and joyful one.
In Incredibles 2, Bob’s role as a father receives more focus than it did in the first film as Helen goes off to do superhero work, while Bob agrees to take on the role of a stay-at-home father, and what ensues is ultimately what cements Bob’s place as the number #1 pick on this list. Bob initially thinks that this will be a piece of cake but he soon realises that, even without the mayhem and stress caused by baby Jack-Jack discovering his powers, it would not have been easy. Violet is a teen who is often sarcastic and moody, while Dash is at times hyperactive and needs help with his homework. The latter leads to Bob having a bit of a rant (“Why would they change math!?!”), and these various factors help Bob come to appreciate just how much hard work goes into parenting – a challenge which he rises to.
In Bob’s experience as a stay-at-home parent, we see an honest and realistic depiction of what fatherhood is like. For Bob it is a very humbling experience, as he realises just how much he has to learn and that it is nowhere near as easy as he would have ever imagined it. He makes numerous mistakes, but he learns from them and, in doing so, strengthens his bonds with his children and becomes a well-rounded, wholly believable father (bar the whole superpowers thing, obviously). Plus he has no issue with embarrassing Violet in front of her crush, Tony – many of us no doubt cringed at the time when our parents did that to us, but have since come to laugh about it years later. As such, Bob tops this list, not just because he is a loving and devoted father who is willing to make sacrifices for his family, but because fatherhood was a huge learning process for him, and one which made him both a better father and a better person than he otherwise would have been.