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Hey mom, look what we learned! Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we're counting down our picks for the "Top 10 Kids’ Movies That Dealt with Serious Issues."
For this list, we’re looking at movies intended for younger audiences that touch on important social or political issues. Lots of kids’ movies have morals in them like “be true to yourself,” or coming-of-age themes, but we’re focusing on those that tackle something on a bigger scale.
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The Lego Movie
Audiences didn’t necessarily have high expectations for this film, which could easily have just been a ploy to rake in merchandising dollars; but by the time they left the theatre, moviegoers weren’t just entertained—they also probably noticed that The Lego Movie actually dealt with some interesting political themes. The storyline has some highly satirical undertones, and subtly addresses class issues, with film critic Bilge Ebiri even describing it as portraying “a proletarian LEGO revolution.” On the other hand, some critics argued the opposite—that the message was really meant to be anti-socialist. Take from it what you will!
FernGully: The Last Rainforest
It was both entertaining, AND delivered a strong environmental message. FernGully: The Last Rainforest tells the story of a group of fairies in the Australian rainforest as they defend their home from evil, external forces. The movie is often cited as a prime example of political messages in kids’ movies, including in books like Disney, Pixar, and the Hidden Messages of Children's Films. Wayne Young, the movie’s producer, said it was, "blatantly environmental, although we have gone to a lot of trouble to avoid preaching. We also want it to be viewed as entertainment."
How to Train Your Dragon
This movie may be set in a fantasy land, but that doesn’t mean it can’t address real world issues. The Viking village of Berk has a dragon problem, and responds to it with violence. One young man, however, decides to challenge convention after bonding with one of the dragons, and proves that violence isn’t always the best way to get what you want. The message in the film has been related to a range of real life conflicts, and the movie was even described by PopMatters as a “political thriller.”
In 1971, Dr. Seuss published his picture book The Lorax, and it was immediately recognized as a political text critical of corporate greed, with a strong environmental message to boot. When Hollywood put their version of the story to film, they could have watered down the strong political message, but most would argue that they actually doubled down on it, showing a whole new generation of kids the perils of unbridled capitalism. Some criticized the film for attempting to “indoctrinate” audiences with the radical message that maybe we shouldn’t destroy the environment for profit, but they were definitely part of the minority.
The Secret of NIMH
While some kids movies only allude to social or political issues, this dark animated feature tackles one head on. 1982s The Secret of NIMH addresses the ethics of animal research, in a story based on Robert C. O'Brien’s novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. The tale introduces audiences to a group of rats experimented on by the National Institute of Mental Health, which granted them extraordinary intelligence and extended life spans, but also left them completely dependent on human technology. Even decades later, the movie remains a timely reminder of our sometimes cavalier attitude towards other species.
When Dory was introduced in Finding Nemo, she was mostly there as a comedic sidekick; but in 2016, she got her own feature film, which delved into her tragic backstory and shone a spotlight on her mental impairment. While her short-term memory loss was played for laughs in the first movie, the follow up addressed her intellectual disability with more care, showing both the challenges she faced and how she was able to overcome or work around them. In doing so, it promoted a message of compassion and inclusion toward those with cognitive impairments.
Who would have thought that a kids' movie in which most of the characters are dead would work so well? That was the premise of Coco, 2017s Disney/Pixar film focusing on the Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos ["Day of the Dead" in Spanish]. Before its release, Disney courted controversy when they tried to trademark the name of the holiday; but in the end, the movie was not only respectful of tradition, it also addressed the issue of death for younger audiences. Through its thoughtful world-building and colorful characters, it framed our mortality in a way that emphasized memory and our relationship to those passed.
In a lot of ways, Inside Out is a classic coming-of-age story, but the unique way in which it’s told lets us delve deeper into the complex gamut of emotions that we all deal with on a day-to-day basis. It addresses the concept of sadness in a way that may have been targeted towards younger audiences, but definitely had the adult viewers feeling the poignant moments as well. The filmmakers were so eager to get things right that they actually worked with psychologists from the University of California, Berkeley to ensure an accurate and healthy message.
In terms of overt social and political commentary, WALL-E is an easy choice. The very premise of the movie functions as a cautionary tale. In the 29th century, rampant consumerism has quite literally destroyed the Earth, and the planet’s residents have been forced to evacuate. The film’s portrayal of what humanity has become several centuries into the future is one that would make any viewer take a good hard look at themselves. Though this is a Pixar movie ostensibly created for children, it had a message that was just as powerful for older audiences as well.
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a couple of honorable mentions.
- Cars 2
- The Iron Giant
This buddy cop comedy brought the laughs, but also functioned as a textbook fable—using anthropomorphic animals to impart a moral message. Released in the troubled political landscape of 2016, Zootopia managed to straddle a difficult divide: It was ridiculously entertaining, while addressing sexism and racism at the same time. That’s a lot of narrative weight for one bunny to bear, but with help from Nick Wilde, Officer Judy Hopps pulled it off with gusto. Critics showered the movie with near universal acclaim, and given the way it succeeds so well at so many levels—well, Zootopia, you earned it!