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Feature FilmIdeas/Commentary

Why Must Animated Kids’ Movies Promote Self-Esteem Myths?

Luke Epplin writes convincingly in The Atlantic about the supremacy of the ‘magic-feather syndrome’ in kids’ animated features, which is the idea stemming from Dumbo that a character can do anything as long as they build up their self-esteem. The concept stretches back further, too. For example, The Little Engine That Could. Recent film like Planes and Turbo are both guilty of this phenomenon, according to Epplin:

Following one’s dreams necessarily entails the pursuit of the extraordinary in these films. The protagonists sneer at the mundane, repetitive work performed by their unimaginative peers. Dusty abhors the smell of fertilizer and whines to his flying coach that he’s “been flying day after day over these same fields for years.” Similarly, Turbo performs his duties in the garden poorly, and his insubordination eventually gets him and Chet fired. Their attitudes are all part of an ethos that privileges self-fulfillment over the communal good.

In addition to disparaging routine labor, these films discount the hard work that enables individuals to reach the top of their professions. Turbo and Dusty don’t need to hone their craft for years in minor-league circuits like their racing peers presumably did. It’s enough for them simply to show up with no experience at the world’s most competitive races, dig deep within themselves, and out-believe their opponents. They are, in many ways, the perfect role models for a generation weaned on instant gratification.

This predictable approach to storytelling is juxtaposed against the infinite riches of Charles Schulz’s comic Peanuts, and more specifically, the animated Peanuts feature A Boy Named Charlie Brown, in which Charlie Brown is denied instant gratification at every turn:

A Boy Named Charlie Brown might come across now as harsh and unforgiving–especially to audiences that aren’t familiar with the comic strip’s cruel undercurrents–but its lessons are more enduring than those from movies where characters fulfill their impossible dreams. Charlie Brown learns through Linus’s tough-love speech that failure, no matter how painful, is not permanent, and that the best means of withstanding it is simply to show up the next day to school with the fortitude to try again. Losing also forces Charlie Brown to come to terms with his own limitations. He can’t rely on a miraculous victory to rescue him from his tormented childhood. He followed his dream, it didn’t pan out, and he ends up more or less where he started, only a little more experienced and presumably with a little more respect from his peers. They may no longer be able to refer to him as “failure-face,” but Lucy still yanks away the football when he becomes too hopeful. It’s incremental, rather than life-altering, progress.

Epplin isn’t naive and knows that today’s market-tested, consumer-friendly animated features won’t take the kind of narrative risks that Schulz did in the 1960s. His suggestions for improvement are, nonetheless, quite sensible: “Contemporary animated films would never emulate the tough life lessons of A Boy Named Charlie Brown, but they’d do well to reintroduce the twin notions of failure and humility.”

The entire article is well worth a read, even if the release date of Dumbo is off by a couple years. And with a CGI Peanuts feature currently in the works, one hopes that the writers of the screenplay will stay true to the spirit of Schulz’s universe instead of following the cheap virtueless storytelling tropes of contemporary animation studio features.

  • jmahon

    it’s an extremely easy cliche story where you can plug in “character”, “problem” “goal” and have your own movie, where the rest writes itself, and animated movies recently are all about playing it safe, with a few good exceptions of course.

    Part of this was why I think Monsters U was so extremely refreshing, and it touched a lot of people with some brutal honesty I think the viewers watching it either had experienced themselves and related to, or should definitely hear at some point in their lives. It was so, so much more satisfying than the ending you’d expect to happen. I loved it, because I had totally been there(without being a monster)

  • Monsters U sure did a good job of subverting this cliche – one of the reasons I think the movie was underrated.

  • s11pm1

    I did enjoy the article, though I don’t think Monsters University fits the criticism. Mike Wazowski never becomes scary, even in the end. I thought that was a strong road to take, especially in light of movies like Turbo and Planes.

    • zac leck

      But we all know in the end Mike becomes the hero, using his unique comedic skills to save the day and completely solve the energy crisis.

    • Good point there. It’s also the same reason why I like Wreck it Ralph.

  • Rae

    “They are, in many ways, the perfect role models for a generation weaned on instant gratification.”
    This is a really good point. If media aimed at children teaches anything, it should be based around how to handle not winning, or even better, LOSING. You don’t always win in life, in fact very few very rarely win, no matter how many friends you have, or how confident, or good you are. And as far as I’ve learned in life, a lot of “winners” cheated, but these movies should reinforce “don’t let that discourage you from finding your own happiness” and not “you’ll get there if you kind of put some effort into it even though you have no credentials”.
    I don’t know, maybe I’m just really sick of the underdog trope in animated films. It’s too easy to write. Yah the good guy’s a loser, and he’s sort of likeable/relatable, and we all know he wins in the end. There are so many other things to touch on, and this one’s run it’s course.

    • optimist

      What other things are there to touch on?
      There really are only so many stories when you boil them down to the essentials. What you’re tired of isn’t the bare-bones-basic underdog story itself, but the fact that the story hasn’t been told well enough or with characters who seem really genuine or worthy of attention. That’s where the trouble lies imho.

      • Rae

        There are an infinite number of stories to be written, and infinite number of problems to be discussed, have a character driven story and they create their own problems. Just be creative. Like, books have used so many subjects, there are so many different stories, but western animation is pretty neglected, everything feels the same. Which is incredibly disappointing, because you can do just about anything with animation.

        • Dwayne Gayle

          I can agree to an extent, if you look at other countries on how stories are told and how their stories unfold, to me i think it has something to do heavily with the narrative that is in the US. These character driven stories of one that is nothing that becomes something (from failure to success), Saving lives with a group, being the one and only answer to a mystery, or Overcoming fear; yes it has been done many times however I NEVER DISCREDIT these themes. I think they all are EXCEPTIONALLY important however the main argument is cultivating the art of creativity in a story. in my opinion animations are providing a consistent theme throughout however it seems to me that society may care specifically for what happens in scenes relating to action or drama or comedy, which is OK, however the problem is it’s easy to saturate the public with mindless comedy action romance and drama with out the intent of exploring the mind (science philosophy culture Etc.) I truly enjoy many PIXAR, Dreamworks, BlueSky, Disney, and many other studio animations I think because of them, parents, culture, and society we probably wouldn’t have the perspective that we have today.

  • Brent Tyler

    In 1940, I had to just wish upon a star. In 1953 I had to think happy thoughts. In 1997 I had to go the distance. In 2009 I had to work hard and save money? What a ripoff.

    • DavidAFrench

      That’s a good point. While I think the article makes a good point, I think it’s also obviously a case of “old man cherry picking”. We think often think “All the good music was back in the day” because only the good stuff survives in our memory. Same way, it’s easy to forget all the examples in the past, and counter examples in the present.

  • I feel like this is a uniquely American phenomenon. America was founded on opportunity and the endless frontier where anyone can achieve their dreams if they make that leap. While that’s not always true in reality, I don’t see any harm in employing these kinds of themes in children’s movies. American children grow up as dreamers and not all of them get those dreams fulfilled, but you’d be hard pressed to find an American success story where the person who made it doesn’t value constantly striving to achieve their dream.

    There are so many films where hard work and toil and sweat result in the desired rewards too. I was actually surprised the article mentions Monsters University, because the story there is the complete opposite. *SPOILERS* A monster not made for scaring tries his hardest and gets to attend the university of his choice and flounders once there. He takes a team of misfits to victory, but in the end loses out on his dream. He ends up working for Monsters Inc. by starting in the mailroom and working his way up, much like people do in real life and in the end he’s still not a scarer, but a scare coach.

    I there’s room for the Planes and Turbos as well as the Charlie Browns. I just hope they don’t remake Charlie Brown into something he’s not. I just hope any franchise isn’t remade into something it’s not.

  • Frank

    I think that is what works about Monsters University than something like Turbo. Mike, despite wanting and trying really hard to be a scarer, just couldn’t do it. Sometimes in life, no matter how much you try and work want to achieve a goal, you won’t always be able to accomplish it. Also, in a movie like Ratatouille, Remy had to actually work to get where he did in the end. Turbo on the other hand, just got superpowers and that’s it.

  • William Jardine

    Exactly why Monsters University was so good. A realistic, responsible moral message: you can try the hardest out of anyone, you can want it the most, but you can’t do anything. I can cross my fingers, my toes and my bloody eyes, but I’m not going to be a professional Rugby player. It’s how you react and rebound from what you can and can’t do that makes a person.

  • General Zhukov

    Coming to terms with your own limitations is not a message for kids. Their limitations will be changing – generally for the better as they grow up. What they have in front of them is a struggle for their place in the world and the end point of that struggle is not improved by the administration of pessimistic messaging. It seems to me that the article is a plaintive call for more animated movies from an adult oriented viewpoint. Fine, just don’t blame that on the plots of kids movies.

    • Jonny

      Totally agree with your comment.

    • DarylT

      Exactly. This guy just comes off as a miserable nan

    • Many limitations we deal with in life start in childhood. Based on the childs background (like how their raised), they don’t always change or get better over time. What matters most is about teaching kids to have the experience…the experience of what it’s like to mess up and still keep trying. I remember A Boy Named Charlie Brown very well (it played many times on the Disney Channel). He fails the spelling bee at the end, but the underlying factor is how far he actually got. None of his friends could do what he did. I see adults all the time who still don’t know how to cope with failure because they never had experiences growing up that allowed them to be okay with it. That’s the thing with Charlie Brown…he’s had so many personal failures in his life he’s accepted it as something that’s a part of him. And his limitation turns out not to be a limitation. If he’s good at spelling, it also could mean he’s secretly talented…he had a gift inside all along that he was able to tap into. Yes, he failed, but because he had the experience he knows now what he’s capable of. That’s a great, powerful lesson kids can understand.

      To be perfectly honest, I think we should blame kids movies today that don’t emphasize enough that life is full of failures. Those failures are secret lessons to bettering yourself. Kids who expect their life’s ambition to be miraculously handed to them, who haven’t learned how to cope or find their TRUE hidden talent….their real interest is in becoming famous. When it comes to making these films for children, we have to assume that the “adult oriented viewpoint” could be wrong. Kids need to learn about going through the trials by fire. Your failures in life become experiences, and those experiences give you the ammunition you need to one day succeed. But I question much of what’s promoted out there for kids today. The reason is there are so many shows now that seem to be about characters goofing off, going on silly pointless adventures where everything is great and wonderful, that it makes me wonder if the so called “adult oriented viewpoint” are really coming from adults who haven’t failed enough in their life.

      • ajmrowland .

        I may just be one of those adults. I don’t really remember much in the way of movies and shows where the hero failed on some level in the end

    • Funkybat

      I took the lessons of Peanuts to heart as a kid. Even before I hit some very rough seas, I could relate to Charlie Brown in ways I wasn’t even capable of yet articulating. I loved Disney films and found their messages of hoping and wishing uplifting and entertaining, but I also treasured both the TV specials and comic strips of Charles Schulz. As I have grown up and lived life as an adult, Peanuts has only grown in meaningfulness for me. I feel grateful to Charles Schulz that he actually helped to prepare me to deal with the setbacks and rejections of life, as well as relish the triumphs when they come. It would do today’s kids a lot of good to take in some stories that showed what real human ups and downs are all about, not just the compressed “Hero’s Journey” version of a character arc.

  • Axolotl

    Encouraging kids isn’t a bad thing, but I’m tired of seeing the same message over and over. It’s always either ‘follow your dream’ or ‘it’s okay to be different even if your lousy conservative parents don’t think so, because you will save their hidebound asses in a big climactic action sequence.’ Just because a sentiment is somewhat valid doesn’t mean you have to use it EVERY TIME.

    • JJK

      Lilo and Stitch: You can find a family anywhere.
      The Incredibles: Embrace being special.
      Up: Move forward instead of clinging to the past.
      Megamind: Be who you want to be not what society wants you to be.
      Beauty and the Beast: Go have a real adventure instead of just fantasizing all the time.
      Finding Nemo: Let go and live instead of hiding from the world.

      You can get dozens of messages from films, these are the ones I got. So no, it’s not just boiled down to those two messages.

      If you’re going to strain the message of something like The Incredibles to “It’s okay to be different” just to make your argument work, then arguably every story, not just animation, is follow your dream and being different.

      Spirited Away? Girl _who is different from fantasy creatures_ wants to FOLLOW HER DREAM which is to save her parents.

      WALL-E? Trash-bot _who is different from sterile robots and humans who have never been to Earth_ wants to FOLLOW HIS DREAM and find a soulmate.

      Harry Potter? Orphaned boy _who is the Chosen One and thus different_ wants to FOLLOW HIS DREAM of defeating Voldemort to save the Wizard World.

      Matilda? Girl _with telepathic powers which makes her different_ wants to FOLLOW HER DREAM of finding a family that loves her and going to school.

      Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it happens “all the time”. If you think it does, you’re not looking hard enough.

      • Axolotl

        Okay. Maybe if I look hard enough I will see that I don’t have anything to complain about. (Although I notice you didn’t mention HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, PARANORMAN, BRAVE, THE CROODS, or CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS.=p)

        • Ben

          Cloudy had a good message I thought…Flint failed a lot with his inventions, and even the one he made work (accidentally) ended up nearly destroying everything…but he took the courage to go and take it down himself (with help from friends).

  • Jason Cezar Duncan

    There’s generally two extremes I see regarding the attitude to this. 1. I am great, I was born great, I’m going to get what I want when I want it because I’m so great. 2. I’m totally shit, I can’t do anything! Usually attitude two kicks in after one has had a realization that attitude one is unrealistic. And that’s what they both lack, a sense of reality. I think what happens is people grow up surrounded by these silly unrealistic stories of success, are completely foreign to the concepts of hard work and failure, and look up to these idols that are normally presented in the same light. “X came from humble roots but because he/she was so great, he/she was able to do this!” When the reality is more “X really liked or had an aptitude for something, started out small and worked in steps with tons of set backs, took some risks, and luck turned out to be on their side eventually” If people just realize they don’t need to be world famous in something in order to be happy and relevant to others, and just step back and analyze themselves HONESTLY in both the cons AND pros every now and then, I think that would cut down on over arrogance and insecurity alike by quite a bit.

  • Ant G

    I dont think this is a new pattern for this generation of kids as he implies. Stories like Pinocchio, Cinderella, Snow White, etc. are no different

  • 木Erik木

    I think sometimes this just encourages a false dichotomy. A lot of people don’t succeed at exactly what they wanted, and it’s true that you can do everything supposedly right and still not succeed. But I think it ends up muddling definitions. We constantly need motivate ourselves to change, to explore newer horizons, to not become complacent with where we are. The very fact that you have to call it a “failure” means that it’s viewed negatively even when the intention is a learning experience.

    I find it tiring as well, when people overcompensate to offset excessive optimism. Why is it that a character who always fails is considered realistic? What is problematic is that in fiction, the convention of the story can magically bend to screw you over repeatedly just as well as it can endow someone with magical powers.

  • Charles

    I think it is more of reflection of the executives that green light these products. The management side of the animation industry is usually people who have had no art training or practical commercial art experience but who feel qualified to tell artists to make their visions or stories a reality. So it’s really the producer who went to school to become a teacher or accountant or history and some how manage to get a job as production assistant and then moved their way up to the higher ranks with in a few years. So like the examples mentioned they’ve got their wishes almost over night, they call the shots and have their visions brought to life without having the hassle of going to art school or even ever picking up a pencil.

  • I don’t mind this “reach, work and achieve” cliche and don’t think this is “THE BREAKDOWN OF SOCIETY” as this dude puts it. Is it possible you guys are forgetting the target audience? There’s plenty useless political talking points, middle-management positions and cubicles ahead for many kids today to look forward to.

    What’s so bad about dreaming? Remember, these kids are in school; facing challenges such as learning to read (4-5 yr old watch these remember?), do math, social acceptance and such, blah, blah blah- so a little seed of encouragement (sugar coated as it may be) isn’t such a bad thing…

    As adults, we all know the world is tough, as a kid, these films make it a little less scary, and as a parent, you know it’s not the movies who are going to raise your kids. It’s a movie for children and a escape.

    Anyone else think this article is essentially trolling?

    Curious how many kids this dude has… <— trolling comment

    • SarahJesness

      I do halfway agree with him. I don’t think we should do away with the “follow your dreams” message for kids, but I think if a movie wants to send that message, it would do better by having the character work for it rather than instantly receiving it. (one of the things I didn’t like about Disney’s Atlantis movie was that in the beginning of the film, Milo got the thing he wanted just handed to him. It just felt… underwhelming)

  • z-k

    The Kasanov Imperative.

  • Scarabim

    “Communal good” is another world for “communism”. And *that* philosophy is much more unrealistic than the “believe in your dream” philosophy, and more dangerous. At least the “believe” dream honors individuality and achievement, which all humans strive for. Charlie Brown wanted both of those things desperately, and we identified with that. He often failed at them, and we identified with that too, because real people suffer the same setbacks. But that doesn’t mean his goals were bogus. I understand the point of this article, and it’s a valid one – that animation studios are turning the striving for success into trite, repetitious formula. But the fact that some of them are getting lazy doesn’t counter the human need to be the best one can be. That’s part of evolution. All creatures strive for that. And it’s a foolish storyteller who doesn’t know, or worse, know and yet not fully understand that. From that ignorance arises cliches. And dopey formula films like “Turbo”.

  • Adam

    As a screenwriter working at multiple studios, my experience has been that the movies that attempt to push the envelope regarding message/theme are often met with resistance from executives, because they make decisions by asking “what do I think people want to see” rather than “what do I believe.”

    I don’t disagree that we should have more diverse themes in children’s entertainment. That said, I don’t think the author of this article did a good job proving his case.

    I think he cherry-picked his examples to make his point, knowing full well that many movies don’t follow this “formula.” The Incredibles, for example, goes out of its way to state that NOT EVERYONE is super and shouldn’t be told so. Even Cars, which the author says Planes rips off exactly, isn’t a good example — the protagonist never wins a race in that movie. And, of course, like everyone else commenting here, I noticed he was also wrong about Monsters University.

    • smoothoperator350

      Its comments like these why I always end up here, comments from people who work in the industry and know whats going on.

      That being said, Amids statement also completely glances over foreign animated films and such, theres a reason why anime films command the respect they do at times, and then theres stuff like Loup Garou.

  • Oh, I’m sorry, but no. The Little Engine That Could, is about someone who takes the time out of their work to help others in need, and then accomplishes a difficult task by believing in oneself, but by also continuing to work until the job is done. That is a stark contrast to a story where a character merely believe their way to success. Your example misses the point in the first paragraph.

    Let me be the first to state: You are not doing a great job, you are not special in relation to the quality of this example.

  • Simon Bransby

    I think this is why Miazaki’s Spirited Away resonated so hard with me. Chihiro does something I have rarely seen a character do in western animated films: she changes as a person. Initially, we have a rather spoiled little girl, fearful and resentful of change. When she is given a chance to save her family, Chihiro becomes brave from necessity. Soon, we see her change and grow; the courtesy she had to learn by rote becomes genuine, and her natural kind heart shines through. Contrast this path with nearly any other animated film lately, say Tangled. Rapunzel is roughly the same person at the end as she is when we first see her. The only true difference is that she has regained her memories of the past and can (slightly) stand up to her captor (not for her own sake, but that’s another can of worms). She has hints of growth in her (the forest waffling scene), but ultimately remains unchanged. I liked the movie, I just think Rapunzel could have done a bit better for herself.

  • SarahJesness

    I agree with the article to an extent, but I think the writer got a few things wrong. I don’t think “Wreck-it Ralph” and especially “Monsters University” fall into “magic-feather syndrome”. Ralph didn’t achieve his goal because he believed in himself, he fought and worked hard and failed a lot before he got there. And even then, he didn’t achieve his goal the way he thought he would.

    And “Monsters University” SUBVERTS the whole thing. No matter how hard Mike studied and no matter how well he knew the technique, he couldn’t achieve his dream due to physical limitations. But he still succeeded at something else: being a great scare coach.

    I’m not against kid’s movies that talk about, and promote, going after your dreams. But I do agree with the writer on the point that it shouldn’t be instant gratification. Characters should work for it. And I do agree that it would be nice to have failure once in a while, and teach kids that failure is not the end of the world. Really, that was a big reason I liked “Monsters U”. It subverted the usual direction of the story.

  • Tres Swygert

    “I don’t write for children. I wouldn’t know how to write for children. Writing for children is the hardest thing in the world: I wouldn’t attempt it.” – Charles Schulz

    That quote was from The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation. I think Luke Epplin would need to recognize that statement, and realize that not everything was made with a ‘just for kids’ project.

  • Kitschensyngk

    It’s always about the least popular player of the team no one thought would go the distance hitting a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, down by three runs with the bases loaded, a full count and two outs in game seven of the World Series.

    Take it from someone who lives in the Kansas City area – dreams don’t always come true.

  • truteal

    To keep Self esteen-obsessed soccer moms happy, duh!

  • DarylT

    Movies are about escapism bit hammering in miserabke life lessons. Life will do that for you. Let kids dream while they can.

  • Matt Sullivan

    The American dream, which this outdated philosophy refers to, is long past dead. It was more realistic when the dollar could buy more, and there was a middle class. It’s a horrible LIE foisted upon our kids and frankly, more kids need a cold hard slap of reality to the face.

    • Funkybat

      I would be fascinated to see a harshly realistic dystopian animated feature aimed at “all audiences” but I can’t imagine who would finance such a film. If done well, it could be a hit, albeit a polarizing one. I’d personally love to see a very controversial animated feature, something that got people outside of the industry talking around the watercooler, engaging a hearty debate. The closest thing I can think of to that would probably be the work of Nick Cross, though his stuff is hardly aimed at multiplexes.

  • Henrique Heraclio

    This is the first article I read that matches with a thought I’ve been processing for many months. The “Chosen One” Syndrome.
    Neo (Matrix), Harry Potter, Narnia and countless other Hollywood production. All of them showing how a random person in society suddenly becomes, with no effort at all, the one that will save the universe.
    I believe that these stories come on a time when our children and teenagers have access to (at a certain extent) everything they want. When the dreams are reachable in our capitalist system especially regarding technology. I have no idea about what kind of spoiled generation we are creating with this kind of movies…
    Very good article.

    • SarahJesness

      Eh, but those “Chose One” stories have been around for quite a while. Many of those stories fit into what academia refers to as the “monomyth”, a story pattern that has appeared for a long time. It’s also commonly referred to as “the hero’s journey”. A normal guy goes out, gets some kind of supernatural aid, gaining some ability either through training or just receiving it, and saves the day.

  • Daniel J. Drazen

    The irony is that the original “Cars” wasn’t on-message in that regard. In the climax, Lightning McQueen threw the race he was in for the sake of another car in the field. And the car in the race with a very solid sense of self-esteem was also a colossal jerk.

  • Christopher Smigliano

    (sigh) I hate to seem shallow.. but can’t we ever have an entertaining film that DOESN”T have to hammer in some moral lesson and be simply fun and smart to watch? I mean, we’ve had this ‘Behavioral modification” stuff for DECADES and it’s not making a damn bit of difference in real life.

    • Roberto González

      I agree. I also think that even if they present Charlie Brown as a better lesson in this article probably Schulz didn’t really try to include a lesson. I see Peanuts more like what you describe, something entertaining, fun and smart. The strip happens to ‘teach’ the kids-and the adults- good lessons but I don’t think Schulz was really trying hard to include them. He just was a christian and probably believed in ethics (even if his recent biography proves he wasn’t perfect and had some questionable behaviour in his real life).

      When he showed Charlie Brown as a constant looser he was jus probably reflecting his personal experiences and fears. It works cause it seems relatable, but I don’t think he was deliberately trying to include a moral like Pixar or Disney does. I’m not totally against morals but I agree with the majority that sometimes they should change them a little, like they did in Monstes Inc.

      On a second thougth, Schulz probably DID try to include some moral behaviour intentionally by quoting the bible or making the main characters like Chuck very good persons, but like I say, it doesn’t come out as preachy, more like real life observations.

      It’s a very personal work and it’s difficult to see something like that in a big production unless they had a very good director or a fantastic script. I say Blue Sky has a very difficult goal here, especially considering their track reccord. The only think that makes it kind of easier is that they have a lot of comics strips to base their adaptation on and they are also kind of reiterative, so you basically can’t fail with the character traits cause you had read a lot of strips with them and you have seen all the tv specials. That said, it’s easy if you just follow the same route, the same jokes and plot points. If they actually try to make new things with them , then it is more difficult to recreate Schulz’s vision and personality.

    • Funkybat

      I would say that there are a lot of films that DIDN’T try to hammer in a moral or agenda, but did have some underlying meaning or meanings. And I would say that those films are among the most critically praised and often successful animated movies. Furthermore, I’d also say that both the more subtle and the more heavy-handed “message” films have indeed had an influence on people who watched them. The changes are gradual and not universal, after all, none of these are brainwash films that have a “universal success rate” they require people to think about the story and characters and what it all meant after they leave the theater, and not everyone will do that. Don’t discount the effect popular entertainment can have. There are a lot of attitudes that are prevalent today that were “fringe” 50 years ago, and a lot of attitudes that were common back then that are less widespread today.

  • AnimationGuy

    I was thinking this, too. The majority of Anime shows involve the protagonist disgustingly ‘magicing’ their way to success.

  • john

    Nice post Amid, very thought provoking. I don’t think we should discredit self esteem completely, it is important for children to believe they can achieve great things. But I’ve seen this attitude of self esteem ruling all as quite pervasive and dangerous for some time. Definitely something to watch out for in children’s programming.

  • Palmer G. Pattison

    The message keeps finding its way in our stories because we want it to be true for our children (and the children inside ourselves, for that matter). We want anything to be achievable because the magic is already inside us, and all we have to do is want it badly enough to have the right epiphany at the right time to make it happen. The mountain will be high but never be too high; the road will be long but never too long; and there will always be a payoff at the end that outweighs whatever hurt it took to get there. Defeat will only ever be momentary. It’s an idea older than The Iliad. Some storytellers just package it better than others, and some switch it up with “didn’t get what I wanted but got this instead.”

  • Henry Cohn

    The way this has affected me is that I always despise the goody two shoes protagonist who was chosen by god to be good at everything. A good exception, however, is Pinocchio, who consciously (but not conscientiously) makes the ‘wrong’ decisions.

  • messy1a

    remember at the end of the film. turbo’s friends cheat for him by beating up the french guy who’s dragging his 2 ton car across the finish line.

  • Giovanni Jones

    There are lots of awesome comments here, including the issues I have always had with The Lion King — Simba’s a simp. All his friends, especially Nala, Timon and Pumbaa, do most of the heavy lifting. Any idiot could see that Scar caused Mufasa’s death. The Broadway version fixed these story nits with music and story that deepened Simba the same way that “Carousel” make its antihero understandable with great songs. I also think “Lion King II” beautifully addressed the Simba thing with its irreverance AND the fact that it shows Simba actually THANKING his friends. Oh no, thank YOU, Simba!

    I agree that there’s room for aspirational endings as well as bittersweet ones. It comes down to good writing. Charles Schulz knew how to balance disappointment with hope and humor. So did E.B. White with Charlotte’s Web. But there’s nothing wrong with dreaming of a better life and having goals. I think the issue isn’t the happy ending, it’s with the sameness of so many of the recent animated features.

    Another thing to remember is that Peanuts was an ongoing series, in the comics and in its numerous specials. Charlie Brown couldn’t really win without marring the continuity of the series and jumping the shark. It’s like when the tension between a TV couple is lost when they marry for ratings (I Dream of Jeannie, etc.) Even Schulz himself disavowed the appearance of the Little Red-Haired Girl in “It’s Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown” as a separate extension of Peanuts and not part of the comic strip.

  • steven

    I read through this and believe that a mention must go to Princess and the Frog. Tiana believed that through ruthless hardwork, she could make her dreams happen, but it made her overlook what was right infront of her

  • CC

    Interstesting article! reminds me of this…

    “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
    Reinhold Niebuhr

  • Kitschensyngk

    Truth be told, I’m tired of current animated films teaching lessons period.

    Can’t an animated film be entertaining these days WITHOUT some shoehorned market-friendly moral? How often can these movies teach kids that family, friendship and following your dreams are good and that lying, cheating and stealing are bad before kids start finding it repetitive?

    I’m not saying animated films should never have a message, but when they teach the same message over and over, it’s not only condescending but shows a lack of originality.

  • ajmrowland .

    Yeah, Monsters has the right idea. I also think credit is due to any movie that might have self-improvement montages and scenes, even if it’s just as simple as Turbo getting fitted for upgrades, which I assume he does based on trailers and the IOS game.

  • I agree with the article, from the point it makes that the message has changed over the years and the point that being able to tell the old message probably isn’t possible nowadays (although it can probably be if you try… wait, did I just perpetuate the point this article was trying to make?!).

    One thing I wanted to note, though, is that while the instant gratification message originated from Dumbo, Dumbo is slightly different from the other protagonists on that list. The story of Dumbo is more from of the “underdog” type, where he was belittled but in the end, if he believed in himself, he could do it. The stories of the others (OK, I admit, I haven’t seen either Turbo or Planes, so I’m basing my knowledge off the what-I’ve-read-to-be-similar Cars) do not have this belittling factor. What held them back wasn’t a lack of self-esteem but too much laziness.

    In fact, that might be the moral, now that I think about it. The “instant gratification” part may have come as a result of a one-shot medium like a movie instead of being drawn out like a cartoon series.

    Ahem. Anyways, thank you for your thoughtful article! I enjoyed reading it :)