It's been many decades since film audiences first witnessed Bambi's mom being killed by a hunter, Pinocchio being separated from Geppetto, and Dorothy Gale fending for herself in Oz. Movies made for family audiences have had a rich history of dealing with tough topics such as change, loneliness and even death. In 2016, however, moviegoers were treated to family fare that went beyond the gentle presentation of sometimes scary issues and offered deeper, sophisticated examinations of such themes.
J.A. Bayona's "A Monster Calls," Jon Favreau's "The Jungle Book," Steven Spielberg's "The BFG" and Ron Howard's take on "Pete's Dragon" were four live-action/CGI hybrid favorites that took a chance with darker story elements. The fully animated movies were even bolder.
Disney's "Zootopia," which was released in early March, set a high bar for all the family-friendly movies that followed. Directed by animated feature veterans Rich Moore and Byron Howard, the film centers on the adventures of go-getter bunny Judy Hopps, who sets out to realize her dreams of becoming a cop. There are plenty of laughs, a noirish mystery to solve and thoughtful asides about the challenges of being a female in a man's world, how to get along with animals (and people) who are different, the dynamics between predators and their prey, and even brilliant jokes about the slow, bureaucratic nightmare of the DMV. This is definitely not the world of Peter Rabbit — or even Bugs Bunny.
Howard says he and his team "had great help from a bias expert who helped educate us about the many prejudices that exist in our society. We wanted to create something that was hopeful but didn't have blinders on. The goal was to have filmgoers realize that the characters in the movie are struggling with the same issues that we are. That there are no easy solutions and that the answers can be found through partnerships with one another."
Moore also believes that it is important to add a deeper layer of substance to movies that are also highly entertaining and fun to watch. "When I was a kid, I really loved the movies that gave me some food for thought and made me think about life and my place in the world after they were over," he says. "I didn't like movies that preached or talked down to me. These animated films take about five years to make, so we really want to make sure that they have something to say and that they resonate with us, without being a diatribe on a serious issue."
Spanish director Bayona's recent "A Monster Calls" also delves into heavy subjects such as illness and loss. In it, a young boy is visited by a treelike monster as he deals with his mother's terminal illness. Bayona remembers how certain movies affected him when he was young.
" 'E.T.' is a great story about isolation and the need to communicate with others," he says. " 'The Never-Ending Story' was another wonderful movie about grief and the healing power of storytelling, while Richard Donner's 'Radio Flyer' was a brave film about the mistreatment of children."
He is a firm believer in honest communication with children about the tough challenges of life. "Sometimes we underestimate them, and the lack of communication can become a problem," he says. "They know and take in much more of what we think they do. If we leave them to fill in the gaps of what they don't understand, we take the risk of getting them confused and forming wrong ideas that wouldn't help them in the future."
Director Mark Osborne's take on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's beloved novel, "The Little Prince," also dealt with deeply felt human emotions. The movie, which used a clever mix of stop-motion and CGI animation, centers on a clever young girl who discovers that the quirky old man living next door is the aviator in St. Exupery's heart-breaking book.
Osborne believes that it's the legacy of animated films to help people of all ages, especially children, encounter and deal safely with big ideas that might be tough to understand or process. "I think the greatest thing that an animated movie can do is to inspire a conversation between children and their parents, especially when it comes to larger, more difficult themes like loss," he offers. " 'The Lion King,' 'Up,' 'Finding Nemo' and most important, 'Bambi' have all done this, dealing with death in an honest and emotionally powerful way. Animated movies can help children begin to put words to feelings that they are starting to understand or worry about, but haven't necessarily been able to give voice to. And what grown-up doesn't benefit from a good cry now and then?"
"Kubo and the Two Strings" used an uncanny mix of stop-motion and CGI-animation to tell the story of a young boy's quest to discover the truth about his family. Directed by Laika CEO and President Travis Knight, the film was lauded for its bold aesthetic style, inspired by Japanese art, as well as its unusual story line and characters.
"The best films are effectively real life wrapped in metaphor," Knight says. "Within this stylized prism of fantasy animation, we can explore a lot of issues and ideas that are removed enough from real life that they can take the sting out of it, but still offer some insight."
"Kubo," he says, "explores what losing a loved one can do to us and also looks at the healing process and how we can emerge and grow from that experience.
"None of us go through our lives and childhood unscathed."