Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A B C D Environment?: How Nature is Portrayed in Children's Films

Children often form their thoughts and beliefs regarding the natural environment at a very young age, primarily through the viewing of films geared towards them.
However, as more and more children acquire video games, computers, and even cell phones, rather than bicycles, fishing poles and roller blades, their interaction with the natural environment and the outdoors becomes increasingly scarce, resulting in higher levels of childhood obesity and lower levels of environmental enthusiasm.

Over the last few years, I've noticed that, aside from several exceptions, environmental issues have become less and less discussed within children’s entertainment, while ideals of consumerism and materialism are increasingly promoted.

Still, there exist some films that promote environmentally friendly messages to the children who watch them.

“One of my favourite movies is Bambi,” said a cousin of mine, six-year-old Megan Swim. “Hunters and people who burn the forest aren’t good.”

Megan isn’t the only one who enjoyed the messages of the popular Disney film, Bambi (1942). Many environmentalists and animal-rights activists credit the movie with awaking their concern for the environment.
Who DIDN'T cry when poor Bambi's mom was shot? :(
Bambi, Walt Disney’s animated classic, is set in a lush forest in which nature is constantly unfolding. The main protagonist of this film, a young deer named Bambi, befriends a variety of forest dwelling animals, including a rabbit named Thumper and a skunk named Flower. Bambi’s life in the forest appears blissful, until one fateful morning when he and his mother are spending an afternoon in a nearby meadow and, much to Bambi’s dismay, his mother is shot and killed by a hunter. From this point on in the movie, it is made clear to children that the villains are human hunters – the epitome of evil as they spray the woods with gunfire, killing many of Bambi’s friends. The hunters (who are never really seen and only heard loudly as boisterous satanic shadows) further cause destruction and chaos within Bambi’s life as they burn down a large section of the forest, displacing the animals and destroying their homes.

More recently, several popular children’s films (from Disney as well as other corporations) continue to promote environmental messages within their plots. For example, Twentieth Century Fox’s FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992) teaches children the repercussions associated with the destruction of the rainforest. In a similar vein, within Disney’s Pocahontas (1995), the daughters of a Native American tribe chief attempts to stop the greedy white men who have come to exploit and colonize the land and steal its gold. Throughout the film Pocahontas urges the American men (particular the love interest of the film – John Smith), to recognize the importance of nature and everything that resides in it. Her message now echoes in the hearts of children everywhere through the hit song “The Colors of the Wind”, which keeps reminding them that the mountains, trees, and everything in nature is filled with spiritual life and linked in a never-ending circle.    
Pocahontas showed all viewers just how precious nature can be
In 2005, Over the Hedge illustrated to children what happens to the animals left behind after their homes have been clear-cutted to make way for new developments. TV Guide called this movie about creatures that wake from hibernation to find their forest half gone, "A sly satire of American 'enough is never enough' consumerism and blind progress at the expense of the environment." This message may go over a young child's head, yet they do understand what happened to these poor animals was bad, and that perhaps forests and the unique animals living within them are worth protecting.
How could someone not feel for these poor animals who lost their home?
Also, in one of my personal favourite movies, Wall-E (2008), Disney managed to paint the picture of an apocalyptic future dominated by endless landscapes of  garbage and completely devoid of life (save a lovable cockroach) and make it entertaining. Despite the  fact the Pixar downplayed the environmental message in the media it is clear that the last robot on earth, though mute, does indeed have a message that many children can easily understand.
Little Wall-E literally had to take care of all the dirty trash left behind by humans
Among the other movies on my six-year-old cousin's “favourite movies of all time” list, include Finding Nemo (2003) and The Little Mermaid (1989).

While these animated films may not address environmental themes so directly, they do generate empathy toward nature and wildlife.

“I like the animals in Nemo and The Little Mermaid,” said my cousin. “I didn’t want them to get hurt.”

As an advocate for all things green, as well as a lover of animals, I echo the feelings of six-year-old Megan Swim. It pleases me that there are films out there that teach young children the importance of living a green lifestyle, as well as sympathy towards animals who often suffer the brunt of selfish human behaviour. I’m hoping this trend continues in the future, with many more films that warn the future generation of the consequences of not taking care of the natural environment. 

- Jennie


  1. I remember cartoons when i was young gave the message that if you dump green glowing goo in the sewers, you just might end up with some awesome ninjas running around in a van fighting crime and eating pizza.

    Seriously, though, i wonder what the difference is. How recent is the marketing-to-children thing? I know there was a lot of marketing in the cartoons and such that i watched back when in the late 80s and early 90s, but there also were things like Captain Planet and the like. Is it really a de-emphasis on the environment, or is it that other things which are easier to sell are crowding it out?

    Incidentally, some of the awesomest animated movies with strong environmental themes are Miyazaki's. They're also so strikingly different in tone and pace from Disney's animated films that i wonder how kids today weaned on large amounts of stuff happening would relate.

  2. I wasn't really overly surprised when I heard that my 8 year old daughter had joined the "Green Club" at school. She's always been in tune with the environment... probably moreso than me. She writes her own songs about the environment, and harps on me about recycling... it's kinda cute, actually. :-)

    I think I was more surprised that the school even had a Green Club...

    What does this comment have to do with movies? Umm.. nothing... But just showing that some young children are aware of the environmental issues facing us...

    My 7 year old son, on the other hand, would rather play XBox or Wii...