I was one of those kids who was raised by movies and television. That sounds like a scary thing, and it probably is. But that’s the reality of how I learned a great deal of what I know about the world and myself in it.
Of course, I was also raised by the Church and my family. Even though I gleaned many of my social, moral and spiritual values from them, I always compared it with what I observed from the movies I watched and the shows I obsessed over every summer when there was nothing else for me to do.
Years later, it’s clear to me that this hasn’t changed much for the next generation. If anything, we can argue that they’re being raised by an even larger net of online content that is more instantly gratifying and on-demand than anything my 10-year-old self could ever dream up.
One thing that has changed, however, is Pixar. Yes, there’s a new Pixar movie out in theaters right now, which means millions of people all over the world have already viewed it at least once. And they’ve come across a sequel to a staple of the millennial childhood that just as many adults of that generation fell in love with as well. Trust me, I remember how many single adults were in the theater back in 2003.
That movie is Finding Nemo, which still hails as one of Pixar Animation Studio’s most successful films of all time, both critically and financially. And after 13 years, Pixar has followed up this animated hit with Finding Dory.
Unlike Nemo, this sequel isn’t about the journey of one clownfish in search of his son. This time around, the supporting character, Dory, is in search of the family she forgot due to her short term memory loss, a disability that is greatly expounded upon in relation to how Dory became, well, Dory.
On the surface, Finding Dory may not sound nearly as exciting or memorable as its predecessor. It’s hard to top the high standard of thrills, adventure, humor and heart that Finding Nemo set over a decade ago. But like the last few movies Disney and Pixar have been releasing in recent years, Finding Dory has something more important to say with its bubbly, animated characters. It has a specific message about mental health and families aimed at children. And it’s in no way subtle.
We’re in the midst of a new generation of animated films that prioritize message over escapism. Perhaps kicked off in earnest with Toy Story 3, we’ve slowly been introduced to more substantial Disney, Pixar and even DreamWorks films that try to tackle serious topics in more overt ways than ever before.
Last year’s Inside Out, another Pixar movie, was highly praised by both critics and audiences for casting a light on depression with a brazen honesty that most people didn’t expect. How to Train Your Dragon 2, a DreamWorks film from 2014, addresses the heartbreaking consequences of parental loss without pulling any punches, even compared to the countless other children films throughout history that have used this kind of tragedy as a plot device.
This year’s Zootopia surprised a large number of families who found themselves watching a high-budget explanation of how racism and prejudice can come from anywhere, even well-meaning people like you and me. And with Finding Dory, kids and parents all over the world are engaging with a story about how challenging it is to be a parent to someone with a disability.
It can be easy to cast cynicism over this new wave of meaningful kids’ films, especially because we’re allowing wonderful pieces of entertainment to play a bigger part in rearing the next generation of minds. I know firsthand how that sort of responsibility can be abused and misused very quickly.
That’s why it’s up to parents to make sure their children don’t take the wrong lessons from what they watch. And it’s probably more important than ever that parents have conversations with their children about what it is they’ve observed and understood about any movie, Pixar or otherwise.
Because whether we like it or not, the next generation is being raised by something.
These days, it can be hard to tell what that something is and how much influence it holds over growing and developing people looking for the next world to escape into.
Fortunately for us, animation studios like Pixar and Disney are working harder than ever to make kids and adults think about what they absorb from their screens.
We don’t have to agree with every message we take from this world at face value, but it’s good to know that when we do interact with our culture’s entertainment, we have a lot of interesting and challenging issues to consider.
Even while watching a silly animated film about a fish who constantly reminds herself to “just keep swimming.”