Every human society has accepted ways of behaving backed by a particular worldview. These views are open to challenge, but the changes can be subtle. If one of my boys wants to propose a change to the amount of sugar he’s allowed to have of an afternoon, he’s more likely to see how close he can sidle up to a mound of muffins before he gets challenged. All the way, often enough, and he’s achieved social change. When society sidles up to social change, you’re more likely to see it happen in films long before it reaches the public forums.
Children’s movies provide one of the most interesting indicators of social change. In every story there is a hero with a barrier to overcome, but what that barrier is depends very much on what producers visualise as the problem that will resonate most with their audiences. Over the past two decades we’ve sat in the dark and seen Hollywood sidle up to and heroically step over a number of significant social boundaries. And thanks to their edging we’ve collectively come to consider those barriers irrelevant.
One of the first to fall was racial prejudice, a barrier built from the ethnic caricatures villains use to keep a hero in his place. In Disney’s Aladdin (1992) our champion musically railed at the idea of being a “street rat” and we eventually discovered he was actually a “diamond in the rough”. In 2001, kids discovered that just because Shrek was a filthy, green ogre it didn’t mean he couldn’t have a heart of gold. And in 2007, Ratatouille taught us that being a gutter-dwelling vermin shouldn’t preclude you from a place in a five-star kitchen.
Another easy obstacle to overcome were society’s expectations. In A Bug’s Life (1998), the ambitious ant Flik proved that a lowly worker could save everyone by defying the collective. It happened again in Happy Feet (2006), when we learned with Mumble that dancing was just as good as singing, regardless of what grizzled elders might say. And last year Monsters University taught us that not even the scaled Dean of Scare School had a right to limit who could climb under a kid’s bed.
Probably less welcome, though, have been those films that targeted a parent’s right to direct a child’s life. Family expectations came under fire in 2010’s How To Train Your Dragon when a Viking dad failed to understand his son’s insights. Likewise, 2012’s Brave taught us that mums who compel their daughters to recognise their royal responsibilities will only ruin their relationships. In fact, parental fears could qualify as a wholly separate barrier to happiness. Finding Nemo taught us that parents needed to trust their small fry, The Incredibles told kids their mums’ fears were likely to be unfounded, and Hotel Transylvania emphasised that it was better for dads to keep their fangs out of their daughters’ love lives.
Now don’t get me wrong. Movies do a great job identifying barriers that need challenging. Fantastic Mr. Fox does a good job demonstrating the risks we run when we make our dreams more important than those we love. But that’s a rare occurrence. The age of individualism has resulted in storylines that have mounted comic cases for ignoring every form of authority that comes in conflict with a child’s heart. But in 2013 Hollywood is hurdling a barrier it once helped to build.
This year two films will question whether nature itself has a right to challenge our aspirations. In Dreamworks’ Turbo, a snail called Theo dreams of being super-fast. His brother Chet tries to convince him that speed isn’t an option for a mollusc. There are certain basic realities that can’t be overturned, and your birth is one of them:
Theo: “It’s in me!”
Chet: “No, it’s not!”
Theo: “Says who?”
Chet: “Mother Nature! And the sooner you accept the dull reality of your life, the better.”
But it’s more than a matter of defying social conventions when Chet brings Mother Nature into the argument. Using bright, simplistic characters, the writers of Turbo suggest that just because someone is born a snail, it doesn’t mean they have to stay one. Let that sink in. Then ask yourself, who decided that the snail should be a snail in the first place? And so Mother Nature becomes the polite alias for any force saying we were created to be a certain way.
A similar storyline emerges from Pixar’s Planes. Dusty Crophopper is a farm aircraft who dreams of more than spraying pesticide on the wheat fields of small town America. His construction is against him, but he’s determined not to let that get in the way of entering the Wings Around The World race. In Planes Dusty and his supporters set their sites on exceeding the limitations of their designs:
Franz: You’re an inspiration to all of us!
Dusty: All of us?
Franz: Yes, all of us who want to do more than we were built for.
It seems fairly encouraging for Dusty to dream to overcome his build, but by making the implied designer the barrier, Hollywood teaches our kids to question a different sort of wisdom. I’m not suggesting a malevolent conspiracy to attack the Bible’s teaching on topics like homosexuality or gender reassignment. That would be attributing far too much villainy to the writers of Turbo and Planes. But it’s worth considering how the increasingly strident demands of individualism filters down into the world of children’s entertainment. The advantage for society, the collective experience of family, the wisdom of elders and now birth itself all have to bow before what I feel inside to be true.
I do want my boys to think very carefully about the restrictions society places on people simply because they are man-made rules, and so are subject to sin and error. But they’re able to do that with confidence because, first of all, I’m teaching them that there is a Creator who sits above our earthly intelligence, and whose decisions they can trust above everything else.More