Screen-time for children is often branded as the big bad wolf which most parents have to befriend in the parenting journey. There’s ample research of its detrimental effects; yet, and particularly so during the pandemic-induced school closures, the screen of a TV or a tablet was what parents turned to, to engage and entertain their children.
And there may be good reason for it. Despite all the bad rap that screen time for kids gets, some new-age animated films are introducing subjects like mental health and environmental conservation to our children, a much needed break in stereotypical programming which has had problematic tropes like princesses always needing a prince to rescue them. New content for children now also delves into issues not talked about openly, like the loss of a loved one and grief.
In moderation therefore, screen time can be a great tool for learning. In India, storytelling has after all always been a powerful medium for learning. We have had puppets, dance and music, all helping children—and adults—since time immemorial, to familiarise themselves with religious texts, local heroes, ancient epics, and history. At times these stories end with a moral. Visual aids do more than enhance this experience: they stimulate their audiences, hold their attention, and make the experience a memorable one.
Animated movies do the same for children. And they have been evolving over time with changing narratives and themes relevant to the present.
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Environment and conservation, for instance, is evolving as a dominant subject. Like, Rio 2 (2014), a sequel to Rio (2011), which introduced us to the Blue Macaw, or Spix’s macaw, a species endemic to Brazil. In the movie, a Blue Macaw family finds its way back to its roots, deep in the Amazon forests, only to realise that plans by humans to cut down the trees that they are dependent on for food and to roost, could wipe them out altogether. Deforestation is indeed one of the major reasons why the Spix’s macaw is now declared ‘extinct in the wild’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN); it can be found today only in captive breeding programmes. A TV series called Go, Diego! Go! (2005-2011, originally; available on Amazon Prime Video in India) in which an eight-year-old boy rescues animals, introduced my daughter not just to the lesser-talked-about species—tree frog, leatherback sea turtle, llama—but also about their unique characteristics and habitat.
A slightly older but relevant movie of the same genre is Bee Movie (2007). Delightfully narrated by its main protagonist Barry B. Benson, it tells you about the importance of bees in our ecosystem, how flowers would disappear without their role in pollination, and how over-exploitation is harming them. The entire Ice Age series of films introduces animals that once walked the earth and in Happy Feet, through song and dance, they delve into the subject of overfishing threatening penguins in the Antarctic.
Gender and its non-binary quality is another theme that animated movies are increasingly exploring. In a research paper, titled, ‘The Evolution of Disney Princesses and their effect on Body Image, Gender Roles, and the Portrayal of Love’, the author Rachael Michelle Johnson says that there have been three main eras of Disney princesses. Those of the first era (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 1937; Cinderella, 1950; Sleeping Beauty, 1959) represent princesses who are submissive and in traditional gender roles. In the second era (The Little Mermaid, 1989; Pocahontas, 1995; Mulan, 1998) they show princesses who have become more independent, are more egalitarian, and find true love in the end with a prince.
In the latest era, with movies like Moana (2016), Brave (2012), and the Frozen series of films, the central plot has changed massively. Moana sets out to save her island and her people, is ditched mid-way in her pursuit by the demi-god she relied on, but achieves her aim nonetheless. In Brave, Princess Merida, with her fiery red hair and bow and arrow, saves her mother from a curse, while in Frozen, fairytales’ favourite narrative of true love’s act being a kiss from a handsome prince is shattered. Instead, sibling love is hailed, bringing in a fresh perspective. Similarly, in How to Train Your Dragon (2010), a young Viking, Hiccup, is shown as a sensitive young boy who does not conform to his tribe and his father’s idea of being aggressive and killing a dragon as a rite of passage to manhood. Instead, he befriends a dragon and becomes a hero in the end.
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Dr Bidita Das, head of the psychology department in Assam’s Handique College says that animated movies are a good medium in imparting positive education in children. “They (movies) can be a good intervention module to build character strength. To understand empathy, for example. That empathy should be towards everyone, including animals. Also, and very importantly, movies can be a good medium to encourage resilience—which should start young—and to accept ourselves as who we are.”
Celebrating diversity and accepting others who may be different is an important theme—particularly during present times—that animated movies and programmes are increasingly focussing on through characters that are branded ‘weird’ by the ‘cool' kids.
One of my personal favourites however, is Inside Out, a 2015 Disney-Pixar film about a young girl, Rylie, and how she copes with her emotions as she navigates her life in a new school and a new town. Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust are the anthropomorphised emotions, who determine her actions. Deftly touching upon issues that children—and adults—often go through, the film ‘normalises’ feeling emotions other than joy all the time. Hilarious, yet clever dialogue, like when Sadness says, ‘Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems’, or when Anger tells the others, ‘We should lock the door and scream the curse word we know’, make this movie a great one on how Joy, although she is the main character, needs other emotions to sail through life.
Mental health is also touched upon by other films, like Up (2009), which is about an unlikely friendship between an old man and a young boy. The man, a widower, is grieving—and angry—before he accepts his truth. Coco’s (2017) central theme is about the loss of a loved one and about dementia among the elderly.
Subtle in their messaging, narrated through characters that are endearing, and with soundtracks adults can very well relate to as well—‘Let it go’ (Frozen), ‘Try everything’ (Zootopia)—animated movies and other programmes can therefore be a wonderful medium of learning for children. Like all ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things, moderation—and parental monitoring of course—is the key.
Azera Parveen Rahman is a journalist based in Jodhpur