25 hidden subtexts in family movies
Family movies are just wholesome, innocent, politics-free entertainment, right? Well, no. Not at all, in fact...
No matter what filmmakers might claim, or indeed mean, it’s impossible for films not to have a subtext which the audience can rightly or wrongly read into. If you consider film as an art, then it makes sense to see a bit deeper – famous examples such as The Matrix are almost nothing but subtext underneath the plot and effects, while other films such as The Shining require you to do a little bit more work to eke out the meaning. However, one genre of films that seems ripe for a closer look is the family movie.
Ostensibly made for children, they are nevertheless made by adults, with adult concerns and agendas. Here are 25 examples of possible hidden subtexts in family movies – some make perfect sense and in fact improve viewings, while others are bit more problematic, and possibly represent the viewer more than the film.
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?
What’s it about? It’s the heart-warming tale of sisterly love overcoming all. When Queen Elsa, born with potentially dangerous ice magic, freezes her country and flees into exile, it’s up to her sister Anna to go after her and convince her she’s not evil.
What’s it really about? As for any hugely successful and popular film, there are dozens of differing theories as to the ‘real’ meaning behind Frozen. Cases can be made for a gay reading of it, an environmental message, or even a Christ parable. But for my money, Frozen is really about loneliness – how it affects us in different ways, no matter how privileged our position appears to be. By making yourself lonely, you make others lonely too. Elsa literally builds a fortress of her loneliness, while Anna gives her heart to the wrong person because of hers. Every other supporting character has their battle with being lonely – Olaf and his lack of friends, Kristoff and his life outside humanity, and even Hans with being a spare son in his family.
What’s it about? A high-school boy leans how to re-animate dead animals, and brings his beloved dog Sparky back to life. However, his secret is discovered by his classmates, and soon pets all over town are being re-animated with monstrous consequences.
What’s it really about? Teaching children how to deal with death. It’s essentially an extended celluloid version of getting a kid a hamster, albeit slightly less traumatic (I still mourn for my first pet hamster). It also goes to show that even if you could bring these animals back to life, it would never be how it was. Death is a natural part of life, and accepting it is healthy – not accepting death turns your turtles into giant Gamera beasts.
What’s it about? A lost alien is helped home by a small boy, with the two building a friendship along the way.
What’s it really about? Despite the resurrection, E.T. is not a particularly religious film. Instead, it’s about returning to the womb and refusing to accept impending adulthood. The mother-ship which abandons E.T. and which he yearns to get back to is the womb in this case. He’s forced to leave home and exist in the big, bad world – except he refuses to. Eliot is the symbol of innocent childhood we’re being forced to leave, and E.T.'s friendship and successful flight back to his home is a sign that we never really have to grow up after all, and we can always return to where we came from.
Beauty & The Beast
What’s it about? Girl meets Beast. Except this Beast is really a cursed Prince who just needs to find the right girl who will love him for who he is, not what he looks like.
What’s it really about? Fear of the unknown - and at one point a very specific fear of HIV and AIDS. Genius lyricist Howard Ashman (of Little Shop Of Horrors and The Little Mermaid fame) died of AIDS-related complications eight months before his final film, Beauty & The Beast was released. Therefore it’s not hard to read into many of his lyrics, particularly the line, ‘we don’t like what we don’t understand, in fact it scares us’ during The Mob Song. It’s a hauntingly moving epitaph for Ashman and an apt summary of the AIDS panic in the 80s and 90s.
What’s it about? The beloved Ron Howard directed 80s fantasy sees a baby born with the destiny to defeat an evil queen needing protection from the unlikeliest of heroes, the diminutive Willow.
What’s it really about? The dangers of isolationism and rejecting a multi-cultural society. After being spirited away by her nursemaid, baby Elora finally ends up at the village of the Hobbit-like Elwins. They don’t want her because she’s a Taikini. She led attack dogs to the village. So the solution is to send her back to her people – in fact giving her up to a criminal in a cage rather than take responsibility. But ignoring and actively turning your back on people because they’re different just leads to an even greater problem turning up on your doorstep, and it is only when the people of Willow’s world unite that real change can be affected.
What’s it about? Once the toast of the world, super-powered heroes are now outlawed. The Parrs, aka The Incredibles, try to live a normal life but are forced to be heroes once again when the world is threatened by a mysterious villain.
What’s it really about? Generally regarded as one of the finest Pixar films ever made, The Incredibles can be said to harbour a dark secret underneath its Bond meets Silver-Age Fantastic Four surface. Many people believe there is an Ayn Rand Objectivism theme lurking in the subtext – the notion that special people shouldn’t be held back by the rest of us. Syndrome is the film’s villain precisely because he wants everyone to be special, which the film’s apparent Randian sensibilities of freeing the ubermensch to fulfil their destiny cannot accept. It's a controversial reading of the film to say the least…
How To Train Your Dragon
What’s it about? Terrorised by dragon attacks, a Viking village struggles for survival. Cast out for his lack of warrior skills, the son of the village chief shoots down and then befriends an injured dragon. The two then work together to bridge the human-dragon divide and free the dragons from the real threat.
What’s it really about? A compelling case can be made for the film being an anti-racism piece, but an alternative idea is that it’s about reintegrating disabled military veterans back into society. Toothless is a fearless soldier on the dragon’s side. He’s then incapacitated by enemy action, and unable to fight anymore. However, thanks to prosthesis and a change of thinking and reintegration into civilian life, he is able to become a productive and valuable member of society – using his military skills to benefit and promote peace, rather than spread destruction. It’s an animated version of several Paralympian stories.
What’s it about? Tight trousered David Bowie steals a baby and forces a young Jennifer Connelly to enter his magical labyrinth where he tries to seduce her.
What’s it really about? Well, it might just be about transitioning from your 20s into your 30s and readying yourself to have a family. It’s Sarah's rejection of her baby brother/rejection of children that leads Jareth to steal him and take him away. The rest of the film could be seen as a metaphor for growing up. There's also the themes of distancing herself from tempting but bad news love affairs, as well as realising both family and friends can co-exist in harmony.
What’s it about? A little girl feels alone in a new house and neglected by her parents. One day she discovers a hole into the Other World, a parallel place in which her Other Mother and Father lavish attention on her. However, they harbour a dark secret which may prove dangerous for Coraline.
What’s it really about? One of the odder ones, this. Coraline is apparently not a dark children’s fantasy about accepting your family but instead instructions for how to turn someone into your mind control slave. Other Mother apparently uses classic techniques to programme Coraline into her slave – all shown in the opening scene of an old doll being remade to look like Coraline. This doll is abused, tortured and has its eyes removed – which is seemingly the main technique in mind control programming. Yep, it’s far-fetched, but that’s the beauty of film symbolism – there are many hidden readings to be made of almost any film.
The Iron Giant
What’s it about? A brilliant adaptation of the Ted Hughes story, The Iron Giant is the tale of a lonely boy named Hogarth who discovers the mysterious titular Iron Giant after he falls from space. Befriending the metal alien, Hogarth must also keep his new friend safe from the US military.
What’s it really about? The Iron Giant sets out the case for the anti-gun movement in the US. ‘We are who we choose to be’ is the message that is repeated throughout this movie, and the Iron Giant’s adverse and dangerous reaction to weaponry showcases the fear that motivates most of US culture, with the phrase ‘an armed society is a polite society' also frequently repeated. However, the Iron Giant rises above needing guns to combat other guns, and shows that diplomacy is the way forward.
Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang
What’s it about? Ian Fleming and Roald Dahl combined to create this dark children’s fantasy about two youngsters, their eccentric inventor father, and a loveable flying car – which a villainous European Baron decides to steal for himself.
What’s it really about? The decline of Europe and the rise of the United States in the 20th Century. The villain of the piece is the evil Baron Bomburst of the fictional Vulgaria, who is representative of declining moral values, lack of industry, and backwards tradition. He steals children rather than arrests the decline of his own country – a comment on the state of post-war Europe perhaps? Meanwhile our hero Caractacus Potts represents the entrepreneurial spirit of the USA, swiftly becoming the dominant super-power in the world, based on its feats of engineering and willingness to look to the future.
A Bug’s Life
What’s it about? With his ant-colony in danger from grasshoppers, Flik sets out to find bugs tough enough to stand up to them and save his fellow ants.
What’s it really about? Just possibly, it’s an anti-government interference piece. The grasshoppers represent the federal government – few in number, but with a perceived power that allows them to lay down unfair food taxation on the millions of ants. Eventually they are defeated when the ants realise their strength in numbers. It’s almost like a call to revolution…
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
What’s it about? Another dark Dahl fantasy, this version of the book follows Charlie as he wins a magical golden tickets and gets to see behind the scenes of Willy Wonka’s mysterious chocolate factory.
What’s it really about? Charlie’s ascension to heaven. His nightmarish journey through the chocolate factory is almost a literal descent into hell (especially the tunnel boat sequence), with all the sinners being punished for their crimes. However, Charlie is finally able to ascend to heaven (via the glass elevator) by admitting he did wrong and thereby atoning for it.
What’s it about? An unhappy family is brought together after they employ the magical talents of one Mary Poppins.
What’s it really about? The breakdown of the 1960s family. While the film may be set in the 1900s, it was made and released in the 60s. A decade of massive social upheaval, it’s impossible not to view Mary Poppins as a reaction against the increase of mothers going to work (seen here as Winifred Banks' suffragette work) and fathers' increasing impotence in the family sphere. While Mary Poppins may appear to be a free spirit, some argue she’s the standard bearer for traditional conservative values.
Toy Story 3
What’s it about? The third part of one of the finest movie trilogies ever sees the toys cope with an unstoppable threat – Andy growing up and no longer needing to play with toys.
What’s it really about? Another film with numerous subtexts assigned to it. There is a religious subtext and a holocaust subtext, as well as the abandonment issues one. But another interesting subtext which Toy Story 3 pushes is adapt or be discarded. In the modern world where jobs are still scarce, and tech marches relentlessly on, it’s a message designed to chill the soul. Those stuck in the past have no hope. Andy grows up and moves away, and if the toys don’t change then they will be put away, never to be played with again. So learn those new skills, and get yourself a new job…
The Wizard of Oz
What’s it about? The classic adaptation of L Frank Baum’s modern fairy tale, Dorothy is whisked to the magical land of Oz, where she must defeat the evil Wicked Witch of the West with the help of her new friends, Scarecrow, Tin-Man, and the Cowardly Lion.
What’s it really about? The battle for the American West in the late 19th Century – the Witch represents the actual West itself before settlers came in, while the Flying Monkeys can be seen as stand-ins for the Native Americans. Dorothy and her friends are the nascent United States and its ideals of ‘progress’. There are also several other political and economic readings of both the film and the original book to be made, which Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked made full use of (not so much the musical).
What’s it about? Newly recreated dinosaurs run riot on an island designed to show them off to tourists.
What’s it really about? Some people argue that Jurassic Park is about brawn triumphing over brains – witness the almost mindless T-Rex defeating the much more organised Velociraptors. However, much more likely is the idea that science worship is ultimately flawed, and while it can be of benefit to us, we must master it rather than it master us.
Flight Of The Navigator
What’s it about? A boy named David falls into a ravine, and wakes up eight years in the future. During this time he's been across the galaxy on an alien spaceship, and now he must rescue the sentient craft from NASA.
What’s it really about? Treasure childhood while you have it. David is propelled eight years from 1978 after his fall, and while he is still the same boy from the 70s, he has all the adult problems of the new world around him. Children may spend their time yearning to be a grown-up once they hit a certain age, but Flight Of The Navigator is telling us it’s no cake walk. He also has all of the knowledge from Max, representing adult knowledge, and while it is useful, ultimately it proves too much for him. Luckily for Max, he is able to see this and go back to childhood once more, developing into an adult when he’s ready, and not when he thinks he should.
The Little Mermaid
What’s it about? Ariel the mermaid longs to be part of the human world. After falling in love with Prince Eric, she strikes a bargain with the sea-witch Ursula to be turned into a human in exchange for her magical voice – unwittingly giving Ursula the means to take over the under-sea world.
What’s it really about? The entire film is basically telling you to rebel against your parents. Ariel repeatedly does so, even making a deal with the devil to get what she wants, and everything works out for her in the end with all forgiven. Go kids. Although being as her choices are basically, 'live in her father’s world, or her husband's', I guess she has a valid grievance.
What’s it about? Forced to move to a new house, ten-year-old Chihiro and her family accidentally cross into a world of magic, gods and witches. After her parents are turned into pigs, Chihiro is forced to work at a bathhouse for monsters in order to secure their release.
What’s it really about? Similarly to My Neighbour Totoro, several people have pointed to an incredibly dark hidden meaning to Spirited Away. It is seemingly an allegory for child prostitution, with Chihiro being sold into slavery to save her parents, and forced to work at a bathhouse – which is in reality an all-night sex club, with the clients represented as disgusting creatures. It’s been hotly disputed, but remains a significant theory.
What’s it about? A young orphan boy secretly lives in a Parisian train station in the 1930s, attempting to repair an automaton his father left him. But the automaton holds the key to a mystery involving a mysterious toymaker.
What’s it really about? While an obvious ode to cinema, Hugo is more importantly about the need to treasure our past. Martin Scorsese is one of the world’s pre-eminent film archivists, and it is this dedication to our history that shines through in Hugo. Context is the key to understanding our world (as represented by the Parisian train station) and without it, you’re essentially blind.
What’s it about? No longer allowed visitation rights to see his kids, doting father Daniel Hillard uses his thespian skills to pretend to be Mrs Doubtfire, a new nanny for the children.
What’s it really about? Learning to reconcile every part of your personality into one, likeable to yourself whole. Every teenager (and many adults) feels pretty torn apart about who they’re supposed to be from one day to the next – Mrs Doubtfire just puts this on-screen and tells you it’s okay to be like this. Daniel is the ultimate man-child, but he learns from his various aliases (undisciplined father, actor, employee, and Mrs Doubtfire) that he can reconcile and co-exist when he learns to accept himself for who he is.
See also: why Mrs Doubtfire mattered.
What’s it about? Charming street rat Aladdin's skills are used to steal from a fabled treasure cave. However, he is trapped down there, where he discovers a magical lamp complete with trapped Robin Williams. Hijinks ensue.
What’s it really about? Class warfare. Aladdin represents the oppressed but noble lower classes, who have been led by our capitalist society to value the accumulation of wealth (by any means) as the sole indicator of worth. In actual fact, the ruling classes are either corrupt, lazy, or stupid (Jafar and the Sultan) and must be brought down. The genie is the means of revolution – but the message is quite literally ‘be careful what you let out the bottle’.
My Fair Lady
What’s it about? Henry Higgins, an arrogant professor of elocution, boasts to his friend Colonel Pickering that he can take any lower class person and have them pass for a high-born one through his teachings of manners and speech. They pick cockney flower girl Eliza, and sing and dance their way through a classic.
What’s it really about? My Fair Lady is actually an ode to gay love. There are the song titles, A hymn To Him; there is the fact that Higgins and Pickering are ‘confirmed bachelors’, and then there is the fact they most enjoy dressing Audrey Hepburn up in fabulous clothes ala Queer Eye For The Straight Guy.
Where The Wild Things Are
What’s it about? After feeling neglected by his sister and mother, Max throws a tantrum and runs away from home. He discovers a boat which leads him to a magical island where the Wild Things are – a group of monstrous creatures who make Max their King.
What’s it really about? Where The Wild Things Are is a movie about the power of imagination and what it’s like to be the confused mess of feelings that makes up a child. Specifically it’s about the disconnect between parents and their children – despite having once been young, it’s hard for us adults to truly remember the power of imagination. We forget and ignore it, but often it seems as real to kids as everyday life is to us. Where The Wild Things Are is all about bridging that divide, and giving us sympathy with the little ones, as well as helping us remember what it used to be like to imagine freely.
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