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