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Social Commentary in Modern Animation

by Megan Waardenburg

By the time people reach the age of about sixteen, they write off animated movies as childish and boring. Putting this label on a genre can be reasonable, but writes off an endless list of films that feature great storylines and fantastic visuals. In recent years, animated films have been tailored to interest both adults and children. This extends to the humor in the film to themes and morals extending past the basic “be kind to everyone” and “it’s okay to be unique”. Animation is able to extend its influence past children, and affect the adults watching with them, and has done so in powerful ways in the past few years.

Inside Out
If we’re being honest, Inside Out is barely a children’s movie. Though it shows off colorful animation and childish scenes, children are unlikely to understand the setting (being the human mind), the psychological humor, or the overarching point the film makes. The complex setting of the human mind requires viewers to understand how their minds function, and be in touch with their emotions and memories. Alongside the setting, the jokes throughout the film reference commonly known psychological concepts, ranging from the train of thought existing as a literal train, or the stages of abstract thought being displayed through the characters. Children who are unable to understand these allusions are hugely unlikely to understand the overarching theme, urging its viewers to embrace all emotions rather than suppress them. This is a lesson adults sorely need, and the film draws its audience in with its humor and complexity.

Monsters University
Given the title of the film, the audience for this film is not ambiguous. College aged audiences
have been given plenty of sequels deriving from films of their childhoods. Major pictures such as Toy Story 3 and Finding Dory have been successful, showing us just how much people enjoy reviving their childhood Disney characters. The film, following Mike Wazowski through his college career, relates to an environment children can’t yet understand. He faces struggles similar to those of any other college student. College students relate to his constant vacillation between pursuing his dream career or choosing an easier path. Ultimately, his success references two major societal issues surrounding college. The first is revealed when Mike ends up in a job he didn’t realize was a major position, but fit his skills and preferences. This is the situation many college students face as they discover new jobs within their field they never imagined themselves in. The other is revealed when he works his way up to his dream job by beginning in the mail room without a college education. This issue is widely debated, but the film tells its college aged viewers that it’s okay not to go to college and that college isn’t for everyone.

Zootopia is littered with social commentary. The moral hits the viewers right in the face, and directly links to controversial current events. The plot of the story alludes to racism, feminism, and the need for equality in society. Race relations are paralleled by the tensions between predators, representing minorities, and prey, representing the majority. It follows the characters through situations displaying prejudice, hateful attitudes, and violence against predators, who become societal outcasts. The film, with exclusively animal characters, is able to address issues with less controversy, and their optimistic approach makes it an entertaining and effective film for both children and adults.

Adding to the already huge group of Disney Princesses, Disney released a new princess film actively combatting most of the widespread complaints about previous films. Disney chose to highlight the culture of the Pacific Islands, and extensively researched local traditions and history in order to accurately and respectfully depict their culture on screen. While their portrayal was not flawless, most can agree that the film has heightened awareness and appreciation of Oceanic culture. Alongside aiming to be more realistic in dealing with culture, animators committed themselves to making their main character to have reasonable body proportions, unlike every other Disney Princess before her. This slow improvement has helped empower children and adults of every size, seeing people in animation appear realistic for the first time. Most notably, Moana has added to a recent trend within children’s films by excluding a love interest, and focusing on empowering women. The story features multiple strong female leads, but focuses on the main character who acts independent of a desire of approval from men. This film highlights major social issues in a way that does not mourn the problem, but encourages people to look towards solutions. By depicting feminism and cultural appreciation, Disney has been able to appeal to audiences across generations.

Animated movies are often neglected by adults, and for many films, it is for good reason. However, a handful of films hold powerful social commentary that teaches children lessons about the society they will grow up in, and can change the views teens and adults have on issues they face daily.

Image by Megan Waardenburg