By Steve Daly
Updated November 28, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

How would you feel if you built your parents a brand-new home and a gas leak from a profoundly faulty furnace asphyxiated your mother, leaving your father widowed?

That monumental tragedy befell brothers Roy and Walt Disney in November 1938, about a year after the debut of Walt’s first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And it may go a long way toward explaining the prevalence of familial upheaval in Disney cartoons. Walt’s two narrative features after Snow White, Pinocchio and Dumbo, contain wrenching scenes of parents separated forcibly from an only child. (They certainly had an impact on Steven Spielberg: He showed a military commander blubbering over Dumbo in 1941, and what is the heart-light- tugging finale of E.T. but a nod to the I’m-not-dead-yet resurrections in Pinocchio, Snow White, The Jungle Book, and several other Walt-supervised flicks?)

After the Disney studio revived its ‘toon franchise in the late ’80s, death as a theme came roaring back in The Lion King, a virtual remake of Bambi (see entry No. 2). Two orphaned girls long for their parents in Lilo and Stitch, and in Disney’s latest, Brother Bear (SPOILER ALERT!), both a sibling and a mother lose their lives. Even Disney-backed Pixar has taken up the thread: Five minutes into Finding Nemo, a barracuda lays waste to a mama clown fish and several hundred of her eggs. Disney is always promoting its DVDs as ”Disney DVDs,” as if that’s a unique electronic format. Maybe it’s a secret message that stands for Dead — Very Dead. Steve Daly



A PENN-O-RAMIC VIEW From surfer dude to jazz guitarist, a guide to Penn’s work

FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982) Buzzed surfer Jeff Spicoli, who orders a pizza for history class, made Penn a star — and a model for every ”hey, dude” character that followed. In fact, it did so so convincingly that this amiably sloppy comedy might have typecast him as a comic goofball.

THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN (1985) Penn reunited with his Taps costar Timothy Hutton in this much stronger, John Schlesinger- directed feature about two friends who spy for the Soviet Union. Penn’s drugged-up, amoral goon isn’t a variation on Spicoli: He’s a walking tragedy.

AT CLOSE RANGE (1986) Costarring with Christopher Walken, Penn enacts a father-and-son relationship as a murderous competition for power, respect, and a mangled sort of love. The movie’s pace and ”profound” silences mar it, but no one can resist these actors going at it with relentless intensity.

CASUALTIES OF WAR (1989) Penn’s turn as the 20-year-old squad leader of American soldiers in Vietnam — who goes from heroic role model to cynical killer over the course of battle — is crucial to the brute power and horror of director Brian De Palma’s perennially underrated war movie.

CARLITO’S WAY (1993) Penn has said he did this one primarily to act with Pacino — he rightly gauged director De Palma’s script to be a paler Scarface — but what great, malicious fun he has as a sleazeball lawyer with a garbled voice and the bluff self-assurance of a supremely confident idiot.