Modern parenthood in animated movies

Ben Bussey
Modern parenthood in animated movies

Head out to the latest animated adventure from Disney Pixar, Dreamworks, Illumination Entertainment et al, and you're never more likely to find a cinema full of families, young and old alike enjoying the spectacle and storytelling, in between popcorn spillages, temper tantrums and dashes to the toilet (and that's just the parents). This being the case, it's hardly surprising that many animated movies tend to dwell heavily on family-based themes. Certainly this is nothing new; Disney's 'Pinocchio' centred on the father/son bond between Geppetto and his living creation, and who can forget when 'Bambi' lost his mother? Yet the contemporary wave of computer animated features is particularly notable for its emphasis on parental relationships which are often strained, and/or unconventional.

Cast an eye over many of the biggest animated hits of our time, and we cannot fail to note how many of these feature single parent families, which struggle but ultimately endure in the face of adversity. Take the 'Toy Story' trilogy; though it's very much in the background, the films do centre on a family unit that is missing a father. This perhaps lends an additional weight to how important Woody and Buzz are to young Andy, right up to the heartbreaking moment he finally lets them go in 'Toy Story 3.'

More focussed on the parent/child relationship itself is 'Finding Nemo.' The prologue scene - with the sudden, violent death of Marlin's wife, and all but one of his unborn children - still never fails to shock even ten years after the film's original release, lending a genuine edge of grief to proceedings which, to a degree, excuse the father's hyper-anxious nature. Crucially, the film shows both sides of the argument: we understand why Marlin is so overprotective, but also why Nemo feels so stifled, with neither party made out to be in the wrong. This is pivotal to the film's enduring appeal; all generations can relate to the situation, all of whom long to see Nemo's safe return home as much so he can be reconciled with his father as for anything else.

Strained father/son relationships are also central to 'How to Train Your Dragon,' 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' and 'Astro Boy,' each of which show fathers struggling to relate to sons who have not turned out as expected. A feminine variation on this occurs in Pixar's 'Brave.' While the father is not absent, the main thrust of the narrative is Princess Merida's refusal to adhere to values prescribed first and foremost by her mother. Each of these films build toward an acceptance on the part of the parent, who ultimately come to cast aside outdated principles and bigotries.

One family film archetype that has undergone significant revisions over the decades is that of the wicked stepmother. 'Tangled' featured an intriguing variation on this, Mother Gothell pertaining to be Rapunzel's biological mother; despite covertly holding her prisoner, she has clearly educated Rapunzel and claims to love her, making their relationship far more complex than those seen in 'Snow White' and 'Cinderella.' But for a considerably more upbeat look at adoption, look no further than the 'Despicable Me' films; that reformed super-villain Gru is not the biological father of his three daughters is never an issue. We might also regard the titular hero of 'Wreck-it Ralph' to be a surrogate father to young racer Vanellope.

The message to cinema-going families is clear: the traditional nuclear family unit is no longer the norm, and should your own family not conform to those old standards - you are not in the wrong, and you are not alone.