What Are Children’s Movies Really Teaching Your Kids?
Popping a movie in for children, much like reading them a book, can lead to more than a simple and heart-warming children’s tale. Literature and it’s storytelling film relatives have long been a bastion for ideas, whether in your face or sweetly concealed. What this means for many kids movies is that many have an agenda or a message — one could even throw the word propaganda around if they were feeling really paranoid. It only makes sense. Adults write these films and they know that other adults will see them, too. Besides, if you cannot change the mind of a firmly rooted adult, turn to the child.
Having a message, agenda, or an allegorical angle does not make a film bad; being political or religious need not be a criticism. After all, anything and everything is arguably concealing a message of some sort, even if the message is simply “buy chocolate” or “be nice to your friends.” The films listed are chosen because there can be little controversy as to whether or not they’re about broader topics than the basic storyline. There’s plenty of arguments out there for other films, some of them far-fetched, some of them reasonable, but here are just eight with an obvious message.
1. The Lorax
The 2012 film version of Dr. Seuss’s famous lyrical picture book is arguably even more on the nose about the environmental message than the original book. The film follows the story of young Ted who leaves the city limits of Thneed-Ville and obtains the last Truffula seed in his attempts to impress his crush, Audrey, who loves the idea of the trees. The city itself has creepily over-modernized replacements for nature, such as glowing, upgradeable electric trees and bottled oxygen.
The film touches even more heavily on the downfall of the Once-ler, an amusement at times, while also drawing children to invest more heavily into the fish, bear, and bird characters. Not that they weren’t already cute enough to care about in the book, of course. Another thing the film touches on is the idea of apathy and blind acceptance, using the adults and fellow citizens of Thneed-Ville to get the message across.
2. The Wizard of Oz
There’s a reason The Wizard of Oz is used as a teaching tool in schools and universities all over — it’s a nice memorable allegory for economic policy and it’s hilarious to see it framed in such a child-like way. It is, of course, not entirely agreed upon that the book — written by Lyman Frank Baum — was referencing 1980s economic and political issues — including gold and silver’s role in the economy and women’s rights.
That said, it seems highly likely considering his personal history and his later revisions — and either way, after years of many academics picking the film apart, it’s hard not to see a bit of an allegory hinted at behind the curtain. The film is no exception, especially considering it retains much of the story from the book, if a bit simplified at times.
You could really go any way with this movie. You could probably even make a decent argument for it being over-interpreted, but it has some pretty suggestive dialogue and plot choices that make it seem highly likely that there are some intended messages about democratic government, animal rights, and social mobility.
The rhetoric in the film emphasizes the place each animal holds in farm society, each with its own purpose and destiny. We have Babe, the pig, who seeks to become a sheep dog despite it being a position outside his ranking in society. When he seeks to gain the loyalty and obedience of the sheep — seem like a politically-motivated animal — through polite conversation and requests, as opposed to intimidation as he’s instructed to do by his mentor, Fly.
“But you’re treating them like equals. They’re sheep, they’re inferior. We are their masters, Babe. Let them doubt it for a second and they’ll walk all over you. Be ruthless. Whatever it takes, bend them to your will,” says Fly the sheepdog in the film. Clearly a little authoritarian, don’t you think?
4. FernGully: The Last Rainforest
FernGully never pretended to be about anything other than saving the rainforest — making it an obvious choice for a children’s film with a clearly intended message aimed at kids. The fairies living in the forest fight to protect it form logging and pollution, reinforcing the need for environmental protection and activism for young minds.
This is a message film has continued to expound. Just look at Avatar, and arguably the more recent animated film, Epic. The theme of taking someone from the “wrong” side of environmentalism and shrinking them down to see the forest from the perspective of the inhabitants, thus changing their mind and heart, is basically what the film itself is doing. It takes the issues surrounding the environment, simplified for smaller eyes and ears.
Perhaps one of the most obvious messages laden recent movies — despite being admittedly adorable — was Wall-E. The film touched on obesity, the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle, commercialism, pollution, and heavily emphasized the results of over-consumption. The film looks at a utopian future (revealed for the dystopia it is) with the earth left behind as a desolate, abandoned wasteland in favor of a cruise-like space civilization with the entire human population aboard. The humans are all obese to the point of immobility, with floating seats that do all their moving for them and even floating cup holders that follow them everywhere.
The infants are taught by artificial intelligence, which is simultaneously marketing products to them while teaching them the alphabet. Screens float in front of their faces, making them forget what’s in front of them. Wall-E, the small speechless robot, is in charge of moving and stacking garbage, but eventually embarks on a journey that leads our young viewers to see both the importance of earth and the joys outside of commercialism.
Something about this film is pretty disturbing. It could be the familiarity it has to real life in America — something any successful dystopia conjures — but either way, the message has a way of sacrificing the audience for the sake of the message.
6. The Chronicles of Narnia
Just as the The Chronicles of Narnia books were heavy on the religious symbolism, so too were the films — and how could they help it? Aslan practically screams Jesus, add a little glowing halo around him, kill him, and then resurrect him, and the analogy is pretty clear. Of course, like a lot of these, unless the comparison is pointed out, the religious angle of the writing is pretty likely to go over children’s heads, for whom a lion could very well simply be a lion.
A lot of other children’s films do something similar. Look at the Zen Buddhist messages to be found in Kung Fu Panda, and the more critical view of the church seen in The Golden Compass — which is admittedly targeted at older children.
7. An American Tail
An American Tail never conceals what it is, a harrowing story meant to reveal to a young audience the challenges facing immigrants. It’s actually pretty amazing how many major issues the movie manages to touch on while still keeping it simple enough for children to understand and relate to. As children watch young Russian mouse immigrant Fievel Mousekewitz travel to America with all the hopes and dreams it offers, the movie takes them through some of the harsher realities of the journey.
His family — whom he’s separated from for a long period of time — is leaving Russia for a land they’ve been told is without cats. Of course, America has cats of its own to contend with upon their arrival. Young Tanya Mousekewitz even finds her name changed to Tilly, and Fievel meets an Italian mouse who sings him a song of the crimes he’s witnessed in his own country.
Robots features voice actors including Amanda Bynes, Drew Carey, Ewan McGregor, and Robin Williams in twist on the classic tale of a country boy headed to make it in the big city. In this case, it’s a young robot inventor with somewhat outdated parts and pieces. Upon arrival, he finds that things were not as he had hoped, but with his loss of innocence comes a revolution, the beginnings of motivation for change as he begins to fix the broken robots who have been left to rust when they couldn’t afford upgrades.
The film can be seen as both a commentary on poverty and a reminder that constant upgrades demanded by a consumerist-driven society can lead to an awful lot of waste — though at least the evil robots seem to be in favor of recycling, seeing as how they melt down old parts to recreate newer ones.