Why do children’s movies lead the climate change debate?

(Credits: Walt Disney Pictures / Toho Co., Ltd / Hugh Whyte / Malachi Brooks)

Movie | opinion

The global threat of climate change sounds like the epic disaster that would only be reserved for the bleakest of science fiction movies, but unfortunately, the reality is much direr. A pressing and existential crisis, the lack of urgent action from the world’s leading governments has caused numerous environmental groups to take action into their own hands, leading to Extinction Rebellion enacting several demonstrations of civil disobedience.

In such a strive for global change, Extinction Rebellion has been a leading voice, joining the likes of Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough and even actor Joaquin Phoenix as figures of popular culture who have used their global platforms to promote international action. One of the best mediums to translate the urgency of such a situation is through visual media, where documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth, Chasing Ice and Seaspiracy have already forced real change.

Informing the viewer about a previously unreported incident or inspiring them to make a real-life change, documentaries can be a crucial tool in changing the mindset of an individual, but so too can fiction. However, live-action drama has never been all that good at tackling the issue of climate change, with dark waters, ok and Don’t Look Up being just three major standout movies that have attempted to tackle the crisis over decades of the issue being at the forefront of the contemporary zeitgeist.

Instead, it is in the animation mode of filmmaking where climate change remains such a prevalent discussion, with filmmakers across the globe using the crisis as a device to tell some of the most pertinent stories about our planet currently available in modern cinema.

Whilst Hollywood movies have looked at the impact of waste in Wall-Ethe melting ice caps in happy feet, animal extinction in rio, the destruction of natural habitats in Over the Hedge and the impact of deforestation in The Loraxit is the world of Studio Ghibli in Japan that has truly pioneered this modern focus.

Instilled throughout almost every film of Studio Ghibli is a central theme of humanity’s relationship with the natural world, creating vast, fantastical animated vistas and charming characters that are often made to be the majestic heroes of the planet, with destructive humans framed as villains. In movies such as Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke and pom poko, Ghibli offer viewers a story of fantastical escapism that echo with issues of modern life, providing the blueprint for broader Hollywood stories that also want to instil a solid environmental core.

“I think that Miyazaki’s films not only caught the zeitgeist in the late 20th Century, for audiences just starting to come to term with environmental issues,” writer, commentator and translator Dr Jonathan Clements told the BBC in 2021, “But also in the 21st Century, with millennials growing up with a sense that their world has already been despoiled”. Popular with young children as well as a strong contingent of growing millennials, these films have become the leading voice for environmental change in cinema.

But why is it left up to animated children’s films to discuss the existential issues of the entire planet? Why are these movies seen as the acceptable vehicles for such messages, whereas live-action films often dodge the bulging issue?

On the one hand, the answer is entirely practical, with animation being a pliable form of filmmaking that has long been used to entertain children since the mid-20th century and tell wild stories of vast, fantastical lands. This makes animation the perfect art form to illustrate mountains of trash in Pixar’s masterpiece Wall-E or the nostalgic loss of flourishing grasslands in Ghibli’s Pom Poko. In addition, animated animal protagonists have been used for decades in the industry to the delight of young viewers, with the issue of climate change remaining an obvious plot line to go down for many filmmakers.

However, the insistence of animated films to tackle this existential issue is merely yet another example of the issue of climate change being treated as a problem for the next generation to fix, or even worse, an issue so trivial that is reserved only for the fiction or childhood. Whilst such stories certainly instil a message of environmentalism within the younger generation, depriving such climate change discussions from taking place in mainstream live-action filmmaking prevents the adults of today, who can make the changes to protect the world of tomorrow, from being inspired by cinematic debate.

Although many of these aforementioned films are directed toward younger audiences, their messages remain relevant for adults across the world, with the likes of Wall-E, Pom Poko and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind remaining the very best environmental movies of all time (hands down). The problem is that the mode of animation is unfortunately not considered to be ‘mature’ by so many mainstream audience members, making the messages of such films seem ‘childish’, ‘simple’ and ‘fantastical’ when, in reality, they are charged with urgent pertinence.

With sea levels having risen by six inches in the last 100 years and 46% of the world’s forests having already been destroyed, it’s a damning indictment that animated children’s films have been some of the only in the industry to tackle such a continuing catastrophe.

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