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One day in the future, I hope to be responsible for bringing up a child and for the reward to be, that I did it well by the time they do not need my help any longer (when I’m old, wrinkly, and the ginger hair has faded to blonde). A key part of my parenthood will be the abundance of films that my children can watch, which usually carry a positive message that becomes a kind of life lesson. Children’s filmmakers have been doing this for years from film adaptations of Roald Dahl to shortstories such as The Snowman (a film that my mum loves to embarrass me with by telling a story that I cried at the age of 2 watching it at Christmas).
Modern revolutions in animation with hi-tech graphic design led to Pixar storming onto the silver screen with the classic Toy Story (1995). What we were offered was story-telling at its most basic, but effective: a simple story with distinct, varied characters that had a beginning (a new, space-age toy arrives and disrupts Woody’s life), a middle (something drastic happens and we find out how the characters deal with this) and an end (the plot is rounded off and they all live happily ever after). But, for me, what makes the film significant is not its success at the box office, its Rotten Tomatoes score or the award nominations it received; it is the message that the story conveys to its primary audience, which is the children watching. The message of Toy Story being that even if something seemingly better comes around to “replace” you, it is always possible that both of you can be just as good by co-existing. Of course adults are supplied with a few jokes to keep them interested, but what is important is that what children watch can shape their thoughts for the foreseeable future.
Pixar usually has a clear message for most of their films (except Cars 2, which was only made to sell toys). Perhaps my bias gets in the way, but if you can read between the lines of the story and what some phrases in the script may actually mean in the so-called real world, you can come to some startling realisations. For example, in Pixar’s second film, A Bug’s Life (1998), Hopper (voiced by Kevin Spacey) explains to his fellow degenerates that the reason the grasshoppers take food from the ants relentlessly, and even needlessly due to their already bulging supply, is because “it’s not about food. It’s about keeping those ants in line”. My view is that in a real-world context there is an instant available comparison to draw to what can be viewed as a ruling elite in politics. The realisation is that if the common people rallied together against that elite who bask in the fruits of the labour done by their perceived inferiors, they would lose their power. The message shows that the status quo can be changed together. It is almost parallel to the fashion of the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie of pre-revolutionary Russia. Now I’m not saying that after watching this film with a 4 year-old I would follow up with a lecture on the downfall of Tsar Nicholas II, but hope that they retain that message through adolescence and adulthood that they may aspire to question their situation in life like Flik did. Why should they conform to a narrow channel of being just because it’s apparently what we “should do” according to society or the government?
Pixar’s messages and stories vary from film to film. In Monsters Inc. (2001) we find out that what is (literally) more powerful that the screams and negative emotion of children is actually their laughter and happiness; Finding Nemo (2003) ripped open, for all of us I’d say, a new aortic valve with its emotional portrayal of a father’s desperate search for his lost son. The message of the film is simply Dory’s perfect line: “just keep swimming” i.e. no matter how hard it gets or when the hope begins to fade in whatever it is you’re doing, don’t give up. Cars (2006) brought home an authentic historical account of the decline of roadside communities in the southern states of the USA due to the construction of the interstate road networks. Perhaps this is not a lesson, as such, but more another example of Pixar’s ability to tell stories that make a more mature audience self-reflect on the desire for the modern human to be able to get from point A to point B in the most efficient and fast way, but disregards the consequences for their fellow man. More recently Pixar endeavoured to give an actual lesson to its young audience in psychology with the critically acclaimed Inside Out (2015). Following a young girl’s emotions as she struggles with moving house from Minnesota to San Francisco, we see the emotion (a personified character) Sadness begin to become more prominent in her life. The film teaches not only real psychology, such as the brain’s ability to deal with abstract concepts, but that it is okay to be sad or angry or scared some of the time and that all of your emotions can be valuable to you.
The point of my article is that if and when I do become a father, I can’t wait to show my kids these films that I grew up with, having being born a year and a half before anybody knew what Toy Story even was. They have such strong, positive stories to tell that it would be a wasted opportunity to not share Pixar with them; even if they don’t get the point of the films whilst they’re toddlers, I’m sure they’ll realise them when they’re my age now.