Lesson: Embrace sadness, it’s a healthy part of life.
Inside Out, written and directed by Pete Docter, was an instant hit and considered a new Pixar classic from day one. The story follows a young, fun-loving girl named Riley on the brink of the toughest challenge of her life: growing up. The audience is taken inside Riley’s mind to follow her emotional struggle characterized by Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust.
The colorful characters were developed with the help of psychologists, including a leading figure in the field, Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner. In his many years studying the effect of emotions on our everyday lives, Keltner learned how influential emotions are on our perception of the world and the people around us. The importance of sadness as a way to reflect on the good times, and as a way to bond with others was an crucial part of the story. In an interview with Pacific Standard Magazine, Keltner describes the story of an autistic boy who was able to use the characters to articulate his emotional struggles to his mother.
Inside Out really hit home with audiences by personifying the emotions swirling around in our heads every day, and teaching us that those emotions, even the negative ones, are perfectly normal. Mindy Kaling, who voices Disgust, shed a tear during the pitch because she knew how important it would be to tell kids the real story of growing up, how sad it feels, and that it’s ok to feel that way.
Lesson: Acknowledging our own prejudices is the first step to change.
If you went into Zootopia (winner of Best Animated Feature Film of the year) thinking it would be just another run of the mill Disney movie, you were in for a surprise.
The story follows Judy Hopps, a small town rabbit with the big city dream of becoming a police officer in the seemingly utopian urban jungle of Zootopia. As this badass feminist rabbit and her newfound con-artist fox partner begin to unravel a major conspiracy, they must overcome widespread discrimination and stereotyping from not only others, but within themselves as well.
The incredibly detailed animation (thanks to a program Disney developed called iGroom) glued audiences to the screen, but the racial subtext throughout the movie got people talking long after they left the theaters. The conflicts in the story addressed outward racism and stereotyping, but it also took a bolder approach by daring audiences to confront their own internal prejudice.
Released at a time of renewed racial tension and widespread fear mongering in the US and around the world, co-director Rich Moore commented that the atmosphere made the movie all the more relevant. “It’s about discrimination and racism and the damage that does to our society. The damage of learning by fear…it gave the audience something to think about.”
Do you think you’re a good person? As Judy Hopps realizes in the film, we all live with unrecognized prejudices and the struggle to define what it means to be good. As Mark Hughes says in his review of Zootopia, deep seated bias is often hidden behind good intentions, ‘telling it like it is’, and protecting against the threat of the ‘other’.
Lesson: Make every moment count, even when life gets messy.
An instant Pixar classic also directed by Pete Docter, Up follows the adventure of an elderly man named Carl Fredricksen who ends up on the adventure of a lifetime with Russell, an overeager Wilderness Explorer and Pixar’s first lead Asian character. Russell’s character lacked the typical Hollywood stereotypes often found in Asian characters, and was voiced by 9 year old Japanese-American, Jordan Nagai. Mr. Fredricksen and Russell are accompanied on the adventure to Paradise Falls by Kevin the bird, Dug the talking dog, and a few thousand well placed balloons.
In the most tear-jerking film montage in history, we learn that Carl and his wife Ellie had planned on taking the trip together since they were little, but life always seemed to get in the way.
This movie resonated so strongly with audiences because of its authenticity- not how many balloons it would take to lift the house – but the portrayal of love and loss, youth and aging, dreams and the facts of life, and how easily we lose sight of what’s really important. Life is the real adventure.
The Iron Giant
Lesson: You are who you choose to be.
This low budget, box office disaster of a film directed by Brad Bird is now considered one of the best modern animated classics of our time. Set during the heated paranoia of the Cold War in 1957, a young boy named Hogarth meets a giant robot who fell from space, and must work with an artist named Dean to stop the US military from destroying the surprisingly lovable Iron Giant.
The Iron Giant was designed to fail from the beginning. Brad Bird even joked that, “they forgot to turn off the electricity, so we made a movie.” The studio had just come down from a huge box office flop ‘Quest for Camelot’ and were reluctant to put money into a new project. Pressured with time and budget limitations, Bird rallied the group to do the best they could to create something great. When the trailer finally came out, it (incredibly) showed the ending. That critical error was followed by a nearly complete lack of marketing surrounding the film. It was so bad, crew members were putting flyers on cars in a desperate attempt to get the word out.
Despite the devastation the whole crew felt, critics overwhelmingly praised the film for its quality filmmaking, purposeful storytelling, and Norman Rockwell inspired design. Using what we now know as Maya, Toon Boom, Renderman and other technologies available at the time, the animation team worked hard under the constraints to produce an amazing piece of animation that would stand the test of time. And boy, did they ever.
While the animation team worked to create the amazing scenes, the writers crafted a heartfelt story with a slew of life lessons without ever sounding preachy. There were anti-gun and anti-war messages that managed to avoid demonizing the military, questions of identity, family, individualism, friendship, heroism, and the analysis of paranoia as the real enemy.
Lesson: People aren’t good or evil. Everyone has a story.
One of the most beloved movies to come out of Studio Ghibli and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away is a timeless classic in every sense of the word. In the years since its release, it has become the most successful and widely loved film in Japanese history.
The story starts off with ten year old Chihiro traveling with her parents to the suburbs to start a new life, when the family decides to take a detour into a strange land. While her parents gorge on an unattended buffet, Chihiro ends up in a fantastical world filled with spirits of all shapes, sizes, and smells. Finding out her parents have been transformed into pigs, Chihiro must figure out how to free them, and herself, from the spirit world.
This inspirational story was a beautiful example of traditional hand drawn animation with just a hint of experimental computer animation. Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli equipped themselves with more computers running software like Softimage to enhance the story and the workflow without technology becoming a part of the story itself, John Lasseter of Pixar (Toy Story, Cars) struck up a friendship with Miyazaki in the late 80’s and convinced him that computer animation can help support a film, and doesn’t necessarily need to be so invasive. Lasseter was a champion of the film in the US, helping with the English translation and convincing Disney to buy the distribution rights.
Miyazaki wanted to create a story that everyone could relate to, especially ten year old girls. He wanted to make a movie that showed every ordinary little girl that they could be a hero too. Miyazaki also wanted the story to teach many broader life lessons, including the struggles of growing up, the dangers of greed, constant consumption, and the resulting pollution of the environment.