Warning: contains spoilers for The LEGO Movie and Kung Fu Panda.
2013 saw the release of a film that sold a message antithetical to the upbeat ‘you can do it if you really try!’ cheerleading prevalent in kids’ movies. ‘Sometimes you can’t do it’, said this film, ‘even if you really, really, really try’.
It’s not as bleak a caution as it might seem. An imaginative scenario in which the hero fails but adapts teaches a useful lesson about flexibility (a skill parents might agree can be a tricky one for kids to take on). Wishing upon a star, working your socks off, thinking you can… in real life none of that guarantees a result. Isn’t it about time kids’ movies became comfortable with that idea?
The makers of Monsters University think so. They told the story of Mike Wazowski, a young monster with big dreams of being a professional Scarer. Years of focused hard work led Mike to study Scaring at the titular college, only for him to discover that he simply didn’t have it in him. All the hard work and ‘wanting it’ in the world couldn’t replace what he was missing: the natural quality of being scary.
“What you lack simply cannot be taught.”
Perhaps Mike’s plight wouldn’t have been so easy to accept had Monsters University not been a prequel to 2001’s Monsters Inc., a film in which the same Mike Wazowski revolutionises Scaring and saves the day. Safe in the knowledge that he went on to great things at a later date, we could happily watch the hero fail. Even so, it was a novel move from the prequel’s writers (and didn’t get in the way of the film taking over $700 million internationally).
Monsters University isn’t the only recent family film to reject traditional victory narratives in favour of more realistic life lessons. The excellent Kung Fu Panda franchise and The LEGO Movie both subvert the concept of the prophesied hero not by making the lead a ‘nobody’ (from Star Wars to Harry Potter, nobodies turning out to be somebodies has long been the shape of family film), but by swapping destiny and determinism for choice and motivation.
Prophecy shmophecy, say these kids’ pictures; heroes aren’t born, they’re made. Moreover, they’re self-made.
“There is no secret ingredient. It’s just you.”
The turning point for Po, the Jack Black-voiced hero of Kung Fu Panda, is his realisation that there is no secret ingredient in his father’s famous noodle soup. Because their customers believe there’s a special addition, the soup is considered the tastiest bowl around. Whether or not the ingredient exists is beside the point; the belief does the job. The same goes for the film’s legendary Dragon Scroll, heralded as the bringer of absolute power to its inheritor, the Dragon Warrior. On being unfurled, Po discovers that the scroll is blank. What he recognises that the villain, Tai Lung, does not, is that the scroll’s contents are beside the point. If the ‘Dragon Warrior’ believes in his power, that belief does the job.
It’s not a question of simply denying reality. Kung Fu Panda’s message isn’t the preposterous but tempting idea that anyone – fit, fat, agile or klutz – can achieve anything, but that our strength isn’t bestowed from outside; we have to recognise it in ourselves and make what use of it we can. Po’s idiosyncratic fighting abilities – a nerve blast-resistant layer of fat, the heft to belly-bounce his enemy into the sky, the motivating factor of much-loved food – aren’t despite, but thanks to, his size. Po isn’t the Dragon Warrior despite being fat, he’s the Dragon Warrior because he identifies and makes use of his unique talent as a fat Kung Fu artist. (As he tells Tai Lung in a self-assertive moment mid-fight, “I’m not a big fat panda, I’m the big fat panda”.)
While it’s heart-warming to watch The Little Engine Who Could defy physics to pull a load heavier than it’s designed to courtesy of positive thinking and determination, that’s just the kind of fluffy notion these family films are shrugging off. Now, the message to young audiences isn’t that you can do anything if only you believe it, but to recognise your strengths and apply them well.
“I don’t think he’s ever had an original thought”
The LEGO Movie is a neat illustration. Its everyman lead, Emmet Brickowski, is initially taken for prophesied hero The Special, the ultimate Master Builder (LEGO characters who, unlike the poor schmucks who can only follow instructions, are able to construct anything they can imagine), a chosen one destined to save the world. The problem with Emmet being chosen as the ultimate creator is that well, he’s not really the creative type.
In itself, that’s a twist on kids’ movie tradition. From The Never-Ending Story to A Bug’s Life and more, we’re used to seeing the oddball creative first being ridiculed for, then saving the day with their boundless imagination. Unlike the heroes of eighties kids’ fantasies (Labyrinth, Willow, Return To Oz, the aforementioned The Never-Ending Story), Emmet isn’t a marginalised dreamer but the most regular of Joes. The few ideas Emmet does have are roundly acknowledged to be terrible, and largely remain so throughout the film.
What Emmet can do is follow instructions. In a reversal of the ‘mock the dreamer/hey, the dreamer saved us’ pattern, Emmet is first scorned for lacking imagination, then his lack of imagination helps to win the day. The ability to work as part of a team, within a structure that’s bigger than its individual parts, is Emmet’s super power. (The LEGO Movie is perhaps the only pro-creativity family movie that counsels the benefit of containing genius and inspiration within a workable structure – someone on that writing team has boned up on their Early Years teaching theory).
“Let It Go”
In much the same way, the eponymous lead in Aardman’s Arthur Christmas, a golden-hearted but anxious youngest son, doesn’t overcome his anxiety to become the film’s hero, but instead learns how to use it to his advantage. Arthur coins “Do it with worry!” as his somewhat awkward mantra towards the end of the film, finding strength in his ‘weakness’. Like Kung Fu Panda’s Po, Arthur doesn’t defeat his particular problem, but by acknowledging it, learns to thrive.
Though Elsa’s extraordinary powers in Disney’s Frozen might disqualify her from a discussion about films depicting heroism as an intrinsic, not extrinsic quality, her abilities are more curse than boon to her in much of the film. Like Po and Arthur, it’s only by accepting her unique power – feeling it and not, as the song says, concealing it – that Elsa can prosper. Not all gifts are a blessing, Frozen reminds us. It’s your attitude towards them that counts. (And of course, true love, but where would a Disney movie be without that?)
On the subject of which, Shrek’s Princess Fiona learns a similar lesson when true love’s kiss doesn’t do as she (and we) expect and cure her of the ‘curse’ that transforms her nightly into an ogre. Unlike the Princesses in other fairy stories, Fiona’s ogre side turns out to be love’s true form, not the svelte human form she (and we) had been taught was beautiful. Shrek’s positive body image message is an early example of the modern family film trend for subverting received ideas on heroism and promoting self-acceptance and adaptability over birth rights and destiny.
“The Special has arisen”
The LEGO Movie’s enjoyable scepticism isn’t confined to its smart, satirical introduction to Bricksburg, the city of happy little consumer-conformers happily lapping up spoon-fed shallow culture from which Emmet hails. It also pokes fun at the fantasy genre’s reliance on Chosen One prophecies.
The film’s own prophecy concerns The Special (a blandly generic, self-mocking term that draws attention to the prevalence of the plot device). Mistaken for The Special, the one person destined to stop evil Lord Business from using the Kragle to end the world, Emmet fakes it not til he makes it, but til the prophecy is debunked. Once unshackled by mystical destinies, Emmet and pals get on with the business of believing in their abilities and choosing to save the world. Though bogus, the prophecy is fulfilled (as tends to happen), but thanks to teamwork, compassion and ingenuity, not powers bestowed by a magical fate.
Speaking of magic, the Harry Potter film series variously endorses and rejects notions of prophecy and chosen ones, meriting more discussion than we’ve room for here. We’ll leave it for another time.
“I volunteer as tribute!”
Moving up the age bracket, The Hunger Games is another enormously successful modern YA franchise that privileges choice over being ‘chosen’. There’s no prophesy about the girl on fire in The Hunger Games, no mystical scrolls or crystal orbs containing clues as to Katniss Everdeen’s future. It all starts with Katniss’ agency, and her self-sacrificial choice to volunteer in place of her younger sister as a death match tribute.
As a resident of Panem’s poverty-stricken District 12, Katniss Everdeen’s life-options are more or less limited to surviving and keeping her family alive. One choice that is allowed her is the essentially suicidal decision to volunteer and save her sister. Death is more or less the only realm Katniss has any agency over in the first story; inside the arena, she decides the terms of the District 12 team’s deaths, preferring poison to slaughter. She and neighbour Peeta Mellark live to fight in another sequel, but the intention was for them die on their own terms, an act of defiance against a sadistic and despotic system.
In its depiction of the bubble-headed, celebrity-obsessed Capitol, The Hunger Games shares The LEGO Movie’s scepticism towards modern pop culture (the song Everything Is Awesome would be a huge hit in Panem’s capital). That thread of scepticism continues in its depiction of revolutionary politics. Though Katniss isn’t a prophesied Chosen One, she, like The LEGO Movie’s Emmet, is constructed by the rebels into a revolutionary figurehead, manipulated by others into being a catalyst for rebellion. The LEGO Movie and The Hunger Games aren’t only dubious about vacuous pop culture, but, by respectively debunking Emmet’s prophecy and examining the behind-the-scenes construction of a political icon, both teaches their audience to be sceptical about the heroes with whom we’re presented.
“You have no power over me”
Perhaps fittingly under Thatcher and Reagan, 80s fantasy kids’ films were a great deal keener on Chosen One narratives. Their heroes followed prophecies to victory, from Bastian, the human child who saves Fantasia in The Never-Ending Story, to the eponymous hero of Willow, who fulfils the evil-Queen defeating destiny of infant Elora, and Jen, the Gelfling sent to reunite The Dark Crystal’s titular gem with its dark half. These characters followed instructions, marking their way through a series of pre-ordained steps to succeed in their tasks.
Bastian and Sarah’s respective adventures in The Never-Ending Story and Labyrinth, for instance, are determined by the contents of a book, Choose Your Own Adventure stories each one performs in their respective film. Each step of Sarah’s journey, from banishing her baby brother to returning home, was already written for her. Unlike the modern heroes we’ve discussed, Sarah brings about her escape from the Goblin King not by accepting the peculiarities of her character (I love the film, but does she really even have one?) but through the recitation of a line someone else has written, “You have no power over me”. Unlike Emmet, Po, Arthur, Katniss and the rest of them, Sarah and her 80s counterparts weren’t agents, but puppets of their stories.
“Everything is awesome”
On reflection, the modern message is ultimately the more uplifting. If there are no Chosen Ones, then we all have the choice of becoming a hero. Instead of bemoaning our inadequacies, we can celebrate our idiosyncratic strengths and work with others to save the day without waiting for a superhero to come along and save it for us. When The LEGO Movie’s Wyldstyle encourages the citizens of Bricksburg to channel their inner Master Builder and celebrate their uniquely silly imaginations, her democratising message is infinitely more useful than holding out for a hero. In times of economic and environmental uncertainty, perhaps movies don’t need to teach kids how to fulfil their destinies, but how to forge them.