It’s pretty much a given that a children’s story will have some sort of message. After all, the purpose of many stories told to children is to educate. Look at Aesop’s fables, for example. This philosophy extends to a lot of family-oriented films. Disney movies, Pixar movies, even Dreamworks movies (despite thinking that they’re too postmodern for moralizing) always have some sort of general message that’s supposed to help kids live their lives. It makes sense: kids tend to be pretty malleable, so it’s a good idea to give them life advice for the future. A lot of these morals seem to be on a personal level: be kind, be generous, be responsible, etc. But what happens when these films have political messages. Is this a form of indoctrination?
I thought of this question because I recently saw “Paddington 2” (a fantastic movie, by the way). The film follows the typical beats of a family adventure: it’s got great slapstick, an upbeat soundtrack, whacky characters, talking animals, and an omnipotent, omnipresent calypso band (not sure about the last one). However, the one thing that really jumped out at me was the film’s surprisingly anti-Brexit stance. Paddington, essentially an immigrant, is treated by many with suspicion and fear, especially from his xenophobic neighbor. It is only upon building trust with a local family that he is able to establish himself within the community, despite constantly being on the run from authority figures looking to deport him.
The film has a very pro-immigrant message, which begs the question of if it should. Political opinions in high-minded “adult” films are pretty happenstance and expected. But something about inserting politics into a film designed for younger audiences seems to ruffle a lot of feathers. It’s not the idea that children’s films shouldn’t have morals: they usually do. The difference is, these morals are often simple, personal, and just vague enough. Be nice. Be kind. Be generous. The list goes on. None of these messages can be political. Right?
Let’s take a step back and look at a family movie that was under scrutiny for its politics: “The Lego Movie.” Yes, I’m sure you saw a delightful animated adventure that was both funny and inventive. But to a few Fox News hosts, the film was a virulently anti-capitalist indoctrination machine. Their reasoning was that it portrayed conformity and consumerism as an evil, with the big villain being a character named Mr. Business. And you know what? They’re not wrong. These are ideas obvious enough to anyone who’s watching the film. However, the overall theme, that creativity and uniqueness are more important than conforming to societal norms, is a moral as old as fables themselves. So why all the politicking?
Here’s what I think. I think that Phil Lord and Chris Miller knew that a simple moral wasn’t good enough. That children since the beginning of humanity are told to be nice and kind and generous and that still hasn’t stopped them from being assholes when they grow up. “The Lego Movie,” then, has a more specific message about the dangers of unchecked capitalism because they realized that specificity is the best way to make a message stick. Simple ideas are too malleable, too easily twisted to fit into any motive. This way, Lord, and Miller are able to make a truly important children’s movie important because its message actually has an impact.
Which brings us back to “Paddington 2.” The film’s message doesn’t just work because some people agree with it on a political level. It works because it emotionally involves people with the story. There aren’t any moments in the film where Jim Broadbent turns to the camera and lectures about the socio-economic downsides about leaving the EU. Rather, it distills its pro-immigrant stance on a purely narrative and emotional level, getting us so caught up in the characters’ escapades that we find ourselves rooting against the xenophobic villains – – politics be damned.
Politics are never just politics. There’s always a deeply emotional reason for a person’s political stance (if they aren’t swayed by partisan tactics). Politics are just a more specific version of a personal belief. If we’re so concerned that our children should have strong morals, shouldn’t we make sure their morals apply to the real world?