Kids' Movies Are Becoming More Realistic And Children Will Be Thankful Someday Laura Donovan

In May, I took my nephews to see Epic, an animated film about a girl who accidentally transports herself to a fairy-like community in the forest. Having just lost her mother, she’s forced to live with her eccentric dad, a scientist convinced there are little people wandering the woods by his home. After shrinking and integrating herself into the small community, the girl wants to be a human again and see her father, but she also gets attached to a cute, if not clumsy, boy in the “Leafmen” world, and this would seem to complicate things. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t, and it shouldn’t.

There are some spoilers in this post, but for the sake of explaining my point, I’m going to assume you won’t be too disappointed to learn the outcome of a few recent children’s flicks. At the end of Epic, the girl has to go back to her dad and she kisses the boy goodbye before returning to her normal form. He’s a leafman, she’s a person. Their kiss, which would have been magical and powerful enough to make them the same size forever in previous kids’ films, is just that: a kiss. They stay in touch and communicate through a video camera her dad made to track the Leafmen, but remain in their separate worlds. In real life, they’d probably stay friends for a while but eventually drift apart, because that’s what happens when you live completely different lives.

When I first walked out of the movie, I was perplexed by the conclusion. Why didn’t Twentieth Century Fox choose to keep these characters together? Couldn’t the boy have become a human too, just like the prince at the end of Beauty and the Beast (even though the prince was human from the start)? Then I realized the production sends a positive and extremely valuable message to children of today: you shouldn’t completely change who you are or abandon your life for a crush, especially at a young age.

It reminds me of high school and even college relationships, which aren’t built to last beyond graduation. The first individual you like or date may seem like a dream come true in the beginning, but once it’s time to enter the real world, are you going to plan your life around the other person or create an identity for yourself? What happens when you expose yourself to people you didn’t grow up with and realize you’ve made a grave mistake? I know what it’s like to hold onto young romance far longer than necessary, and it can be really damaging and stunt your personal growth. Unlike the children of today, I was raised by feature films that claimed love always prevails, no matter how young, immature, uninformed or abused the women involved may be.

Epic isn’t the only kids’ movie of 2013 to challenge unrealistic themes. Toward the end of Monsters University, it’s revealed that Sulley cheated in a college competition because his friend Mike lacks real ability to scare children, and when Sulley confesses this to the female headmaster, Mike breaks into the school lab to try and frighten some kids. Sulley goes after him and they find themselves in the face of adults. Even though the monsters are only known to scare children, they terrify the grown-ups and generate tons of screaming, which gets them back to the monster world and away from humans.

Regardless of the discovery that grown-ups can fear monsters too, Mike and Sulley are still expelled, even though the headmaster is intrigued by their abilities and believes they’ll go far. The boys leave the university and start from the bottom at Monsters Inc., where they’re assigned to mailroom duty. I was initially disappointed with this punishment, as expulsion seems harsh given how much they impress the headmaster. That said, this film shows kids there are consequences to cheating, breaking and entering and even risk-taking. The guys have to work their way up the hard way, as they lost their chance at earning college degrees, but still evolve into high achievers. It just takes a little longer thanks to some bad college decisions, with which most college-educated people are familiar.

The latest kids’ movie with a refreshing approach is Frozen, in which Prince Charming turns out to be a bad guy and the female lead’s sister is the one to save the day. One writer criticized the film for deceiving kids’ upfront, stating, “[t]here is something uniquely horrifying about finding out that a person—even a fictional person—who’s won you over is, in fact, rotten to the core. And it’s that much more traumatizing when you’re six or seven years old.”

As Amanda Marcotte argues over at Slate, the real world is full of lousy men who appear charming at first and turn out to be complete liars or disgusting womanizers, and it’s never too early to prepare little girls for this unfortunate part of dating. The heroine in Tangled is in a similar boat, as the woman she thinks is her mother actually kidnapped her during childhood and won’t allow her to leave home.

The more children’s movies I see, the better I feel about the film culture my nieces, nephews and future children are growing up in. They’re learning there are downsides to reckless behavior, that people aren’t always what they seem and that it’s not a smart idea to uproot your entire life for a crush you barely know. I think they’ll all be better for it.

What do you think of kids’ movies today? Share in the comments section.

Featured image via Hollywood Reporter


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  1. I am wondering what the examples of movies which are teaching kids that life is easy and everything will be ok are? It’s not that the movies cited aren’t good, it’s just that I don’t see the fresh perspective idea. Hardship and struggle have always been a part of children’s movies and are generally what make the main characters’ struggles sympathetic for viewers….that and catchy songs.

  2. I loved how in Brave, Merida fought for her own say in what would happen in her life and how she and her mother learned how to listen to each other. It shows little girls that being true to yourself and growing up at you own pace is a good thing. Also, where Tangled is concerned, I learned that a frying pan can be a defensive weapon in a pinch ;-)

  3. I love this! And I think the other wonderful message Frozen sends is that “true love” does not have to be romantic, it can be familial. It also avoids endorsing the typical Disney idea that you can find true love in a single day.

  4. Loved this article. I’m 22 and i’m more excited about disney films now than i was as a kid! Another brilliant new children’s film is brave. If you have time to watch it you definitely should. It’s about the bond between mother and daughter and is a stunning film in my opinion.

  5. Have your nieces and nephews watch studio ghibli films. They have better messages than Disney films and the artwork is just gorgeous.

  6. I LOVED this. The one thing I’d also add about Monsters University is that it also nixed the “If you want it bad enough, you can make it happen” lie, which was continues to be so damaging to the expectations of my generation (Y) who feel entitled to their dreams, and thus let down by them not coming to fruition.

    In the movie, Mike wants to be a scarer so bad and he works so hard, but he ultimately isn’t right for the job. He has to let go of his childhood dream, and have an open mind and creative outlook that eventually lead him to something truly fulfilling. And it turns out to be something that he has to work just as hard for.

  7. yes yes YES! Even as an adult I have been enjoying the real-life lessons from today’s animated films :)

    Another point worth mentioning is that the characters’ ages seem more distinct in modern animation. As a child, I loved princesses like Belle and Snow White, but could not identify with them because they seemed vaguely older, and when I became “older” I still couldn’t tell how old they were supposed to be (sort of like the shock of high school when I realized that the actors from Grease were actually like 30…). It was a “someday my prince will come” perspective rather than something I could apply to my life at the moment.

  8. Careful with that Epic one, I imagine they just saved having Nod and MK get together for the sequel. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I’m wrong though.

  9. I agree in part with this article. It’s all well and good for little girls. But, I am the mom of boys too. And the male characters in movies have become quite stupid. Not exactly the kind of role models I hope for my boys.

    • I completely agree with you. A lot of animated movies nowadays are geared more toward developing young girls’ ideals/thoughts not that I dislike it, but there aren’t enough or no role models at all for young boys. If there are, they’re mostly inanimate objects or animals/non-human creatures (Toy Story, Cars, Monsters etc).

      • I disagree that boys are not given strong role models in movies. The majority of lead characters in movies are still males. I don’t see why non-human characters can’t serve as strong role models; they are humanized and very relatable (and that gives us most of the Pixar films, Kung Fu Panda, Shrek). But even looking at only human leads, we have the leads in How To Train Your Dragon, Rise of the Guardians, Up, Paranorman, The Incredibles (both male and female leads), Ratatouille (well, half of the leading duo was human), and that’s only mentioning animated films (come on, Harry Potter? and almost every superhero movie ever).

        Girls have a long-standing void of strong role models in movies; or at least role models that don’t present questionable and very gender-stereotypical qualities (as most of the Disney Princesses do). And yes, in recent year we have had some outstanding examples of strong female leads (Brave, Frozen, the Hunger Games), but that’s certainly not replacing the presence of strong male leads in media. Moreover, I think seeing strong female leads is as important for boys as it is for girls. Eventually, children should be able to look up to any strong lead character, regardless of their gender; girls have (by necessity) been doing it for a long time, and I don’t see why boys shouldn’t see Elsa or Anna as a hero they can look up to.

      • Yes, we do need films with good male characters! I liked the Toy Story men and definitely admired Mike in Monsters Inc. He was not the most talented monster in school, but certainly had heart and love for what he did. I think it’s important to show kids that hard work often trumps talent. You have to love something a lot to endure the rejection that comes with being second, third, or fourth best.

  10. I haven’t seen any of the movies you quoted but I understand your point and I think it’s a good thing that children movies are evolving.
    That said, I think we’ve come to a point when we overanalyse movies and the effects the have on kids. What I mean here is that none of today’s adults had movies so carefully aimed at having us dealing more easily with reality, but we did okay. We were clever enough to distance fiction from reality, and if not, reality slapped us in the face, harsh, but we survived.
    It just seems like we now treat kids like helpless creatures, we want to keep them from everything, but bad experiences like those lived by the characters you mentioned are valuable ones.
    I’m not saying we should stop teaching lessons in children movies, just that we shouldn’t come to the point where the princess is sterile and her prince gets her sister pregnant instead. Being naive is a good part of childhood, not a bad one, and today’s kids should be able to handle growing up live, not through a screen.

  11. Interesting article!

    The only thing I I disliked about Frozen was the relationship between Kristoff and Anna. It was too poorly established by the plot and the fact that the only romantic duet in the movie was between Anna and the rotten prince who tricked her kind of felt like a narrative foul. There should have been some sort of acknowledgment in the narrative that the relationship between Anna and Kristoff was more real because they knew each other better, like a short reprise of “Love is an Open Door” that talks about more intimate aspects of a good relationship. In musicals, the songs are important because they are often the most emotional aspects of the story. By keeping Kristoff from singing with Anna, it kind of keeps them from having an emotional connection that the audience can share in the way they did with Hans. From my perspective, that relationship needed better closure (that or it’s romantic aspects should have been wholly abandoned).

    • I completely agree with your article. I love Frozen, I didn’t think the relationship with Kistof was underdeveloped. Kristof was the best friend. Their relationship developed as any normal boy girl relationship would when two people are thrown together. I got the sense that Kristof liked her from the get go, but was noble enough to understand that she was off limits; till realizing that Hans was a jerk. I think the gut punch of finding out that someone is rotten to the core is a good one. I don’t think it’s traumatizing for a child to see a character on screen that you begin to like and then find out he’s rotten. Frankly, I’ve seen some of the kids going to elementary schools and a lot of them have already been let down by a rotten person in their lives. This movie helps show them that they are not alone. Even for a naive person who hasn’t experienced a rotten person before, I don’t think it would be traumatizing, because first off. It’s only a movie. Kids know that. Secondly, Anna gets over it quickly. If Anna isn’t traumatized the kids won’t be either. Anna quickly moves on. Third through the movie you begin to fall in love with Kristof and feel he’s the right person Anna should be with anyway. Lastly it does exactly what you are saying and warns kids early on that not everyone can be trusted and as Kristof says, “Who marries a man after the first day?” I think one of the main elements of Frozen that was not tackled in this article was that love outweighs fear. Love is what will conquer fear. This generation of young people deal a lot with fear. Between school shootings and terrorist attacks those who study generations say that this generation is growing up afraid. It’s refreshing to have a movie that directly speaks to that question in these kids lives and gives an answer. I find that awesome.

  12. This is a very well written article. I am happy to see a shift in more realistic film-making. In particular, women are decreasingly portrayed as damsels in distress with only one purpose…. finding love. It was difficult growing up and watching countless Disney movies and chick flicks with the same misleading message about women. Today, we are seeing strong female leads like Katniss in the Hunger Games, Tauriel in the Hobbit 2, and Dagny in Atlas Shrugged. We still have a long way to go, but theses characters are a step in the right direction.

  13. I think that these kids’ movies could actually also be a way that adults can heal themselves. Reseeing scenarios or even regrets from our past rethought/fixed/refreshed is a way to kind of feel right about the world again. It’s like seeing something wrong with a system because of the outcome (us) and how we had to cope up with it, and making sure the next generation doesn’t have to live through what we lived through. It is reassuring and kind of gives a ray of hope. It’s like indirect therapy for adults because we (omg, I said we. I referred to myself as an adult without resistance xD) feel like what happened with us was not for nothing. With the risk of sounding melodramatic, that there was a purpose to our suffering. And watching them ourselves, it’s like reteaching that inner kid of what it’s actually supposed to expect from life too. I mean, the adult us knows that, but the kid voice inside might still not get it, so those movies talk to that kid and shows it the better way to expect things to turn out, so inner healing.

    I hope that made sense somehow. :P

  14. I loved Frozen, and just like Brave, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the leading lady didn’t HAVE to get married at the end. Yes, there is romance, yes they are strong female characters, but the “happily ever after” wasn’t forced. My best friend LOVED that for her 5 year old!

  15. couldn’t agree more about Tangled. i found the mother/daughter dynamic endlessly fascinating. I know, I know, mother gothel is just using Rapunzel to stay young forever, but call me crazy for thinking she DID actually care about her stolen daughter, in her own twisted way. and Rapunzel DID care about her “stepmother.” i think it’s hard not to care about the person who raised you. but of course learning of her true nature, growing as a person herself on her adventures with Eugene, and knowing her real family back in the city/castle still cared deeply for her and hadn’t given up hope of her return, gave her all the motivation and strength she needed to get out of the abusive relationship with mother gothel. ugh! i could on, but i won’t. i love Tangled too much. lol.

  16. I agree mostly, but I am never going to feel comfortable with the heavy emotional baggage in “Tangled.” It’s one thing to portray betrayal by a trusted figure. It’s another thing to go that deep into the actual individual tricks and tics of a dysfunctional relationship, like a cute “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” (Although, I should note, I have the same reservations about “The Lion King”).

  17. I agree! But -even though it wasn’t a movie released in 2013- I believe that Princess and the Frog displays a powerful message to kids as well: just do not only wish upon a star, work your $%# to get what you want!
    I have watched that movie about 5 times, and I find it SO grown-up. No doubt that it wasn’t that successful among kids…. But it’s the first children movie I watch in which the lead character considers that wishing upon stars is really non-sense if you don’t put your time and strength into a project.

    Great post :)! Cheers from Berlin

  18. I agree that kids’ movies themselves have taken a positive turn. There are more strong female characters, realistic portrayals of young love, and logical consequences. However, the marketing and toys that follow these movies is often worrisome and negates the positive messages of the films. For example, Brave’s main character lost much of her uniqueness when packaged as a more generic looking Disney princess. We’ve come a long way, but there is still far to go.