Family movies, ambition, and addressing loneliness

Feature Simon Brew 5 Feb 2014 - 06:57

Think kids' movies are just meaningless fluff? Think again. Many of them address important themes in smart, accessible ways, Simon argues.

At the time of writing, Disney's latest animated opus, Frozen, is in a very good place. Off the back of positive reviews, it's thus far hauled in nearly $900m at the global box office, and has a sporting chance of being the first animated movie from Walt Disney Animation Studios to cross the $1bn mark. It's won a Golden Globe, is up for a couple of Oscars, and has built on the collection of strong films that Walt Disney Animation Studios has released over the past five or six years.

Personally, I'm thrilled with the success of Frozen. Not just because I really, really like the film an awful lot, but also because of its ambition and willingness to tackle deeper subjects under the surface. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that it's an Oscar-baiting movie brimming with lots of subtexts that you need a couple of doctorates to decipher. Rather that it's targeted at a family audience, and it's willing to use that to do something more than straight-out entertain.

For what I love about Frozen is that it touches on the issue of loneliness. That its two lead characters are both battling that. One understands why they're lonely, and is miserable about it. The other doesn't, and tries to battle through life with a smile on her face. I don't think I'm by myself in having felt alone in life before, and it's encouraging to see it being addressed as part of a large, accessible family film.

But then loneliness is something that some of the very best contemporary family movies have always been willing to address. I like Wreck-It Ralph, and enjoyed it very much, even though I think Frozen is the better film. But I think Ralph has the most important character, in the shape of Vanellope von Schweetz.

Voiced brilliantly by Sarah Silverman (whose autobiography has plenty to say on the subject of loneliness too, incidentally), Vanellope is very much an outsider, and she's an outsider because of her 'glitch'. The glitch in this instance sees her flicker and become ones and zeroes temporarily. As a consequence, she's shirked by everyone, by a society of characters who don't get her or what's wrong with her, at least until Ralph comes along. And it's not as if he doesn't have a few similar issues of his own.

It took me a second viewing of Wreck-It Ralph to see just what a heartbreaking character Vanellope is. Her glitch could stand for anything really - a disability, a stammer, a weight problem, take your pick. But - and maybe I overthink these things - it certainly stands for something that puts you on the outside of what society seems to dictate is normal and acceptable. The defensive shield that she puts up for most of the film is something I could utterly relate to as well. And it struck me that she's an interesting, complex yet utterly accessible character (and that accessibility is arguably the key), going to an audience that might just be able to use the feeling that they're not alone.

For 90% of those who watch the film, that might pass them by, and that's absolutely fine. But for a small proportion, they might just get something far deeper out of it if they can in any way relate to Vannelope's circumstances. With or without the Mentos.

It's not just Disney family movies that address loneliness well. DreamWorks' Rise Of The Guardians is a fast and frenetic movie at times, but at its core is someone - in the character of Jack - who also finds himself on the outside. In fact, at the start of that movie he's in a terrible place, and not just emotionally, and every time I watch the film (which has a great score, incidentally), I root for him. I want him to not feel so isolated anymore.

Then there's The Iron Giant. It's a virtually peerless film this (that we looked at in more detail here), taking a book that at times is wildly different, and homing in with utter accuracy on what makes it special. Brad Bird's film positions loneliness from two different perspectives. The giant is the feared outsider, where people react with panic and distress when they see a large, clunking metal man. In truth, who wouldn't? But the irony of course is that it takes the alien outsider to get through to the one on the other side of the proverbial fence, the seemingly loved human being in their midst. That'd be Hogarth.

For Hogarth, and this is the heartbreaking bit for me, is almost assumed not to feel lonely. He's lonely, but isn't perceived to be so because he's surrounded by people. Frozen does this, too, albeit a little differently. The characters around Anna in Frozen assume she's happy, because she goes through the motions, and when she's around people, she's engaging and upbeat. Hogarth isn't, though. I don't break easily watching films, but when Hogarth utters the words "I love you" in the giant's direction come the end of the film, it absolutely gets me. Even more than "Superman".

Family movies are, in some quarters, assumed to be fillers, surrogate babysitters to keep the kids entertained for a couple of hours. Some are content just to entertain, and entertain well, and I've no quarrel with that. I don't take much out of the Despicable Me movies other than some very good laughs, but that doesn't make them weak films.

But what I have a real respect for is those family movies whose makers understand the privileged position they're in: that they can communicate to so many people who otherwise may be hard to get to, whilst hopefully entertaining them at the same time.

Just look at how Tim Burton managed to discuss loss and death in the midst of the wonderful Frankenweenie. How Disney movies such as The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Lilo And Stitch bring us into the lives of characters on the wrong side of fortune, struggling to make their way in the world. These are films that make as much use as they can of the 90-odd minutes they spend before our eyes, and go deeper than they're often given credit for.

I've never understood the snobbery towards family movies, and never really will. Because under the noses of a small few who don't given them a second glance, there are all sorts of messages being conveyed, to people who might just be able to use hearing them. And that's on top of often giving a really good few hours out at the movies.

Personally? Give me that over another raft of overt Oscar-baiters. The snobs never bothered me anyway...

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Something's up with your server!! Good article though but the server is refusing to let me see pictures!

@Laura Does a box pop up telling you to sign in? But it won't accept your name and password? I got that a few times last week. Very irritating.

Isn't Toy Story 3 already the first animated movie to pass the 1 billion mark?

Sorry - corrected. I'd actually edited out my own qualifyer at the start of that sentence! - Simon

Technical people who are far cleverer than me are fixing this - apologies. Simon

Good points. I don't know how much people miss the messages, often they're oversold in poor family films, and "outsider" stories have been common since at least Charlie Brown and Rudolph (that's my age talking, I know they aren't the first). I like that Frozen obscures which character is its villain until the end. The characters are fairly complex for a film like this. Listen to Let It Go. Then listen again. On the surface a song of a girl discovering herself, a song of release and empowerment. But dig deeper - its a villain's song. A person rejecting society, rejecting companionship, rejecting the rules to do as she wants. She sounds happy, but she's hurting, and as she rejoices, she puts the lives of thousands at risk. Yet because she is so well established in the beginning of the film, we're with her all the way - she's always empathetic.

I also enjoyed Monsters U this year. How many films have we seen about the underdog persevering to realize his dream? Yet we know the outcome from the start of the film - not matter how much Mikey works, no matter how good he gets, he will never be good enough to realize his dream. And that too is a lesson kids have to learn some time. Just because you love puppies doesn't mean you can become a vet.

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