Before we told stories through novels or sitcoms, we sketched our lives on stone columns and cave walls. For centuries, it was how society taught its truths and delivered its lessons. The pictures we made were extensions of us in an almost magical way.
For over seventy years—most recently with the release of Shrek Forever After—we’ve experienced a bit of that magic through full-length animated films. Whether they’re drawn by hand, crafted by computer, or shaped through stop-action, these movies charm us, inspire us, and teach us lessons in ways that live-action films—limited by the pesky shackles of reality—sometimes struggle to do. From Disney’s beautiful classics of yesteryear to today’s CGI masterpieces, animation in many ways represents cinematic storytelling at its best: Few other art forms can bridge generational differences and inspire young and old with timeless lessons of hope, courage, and love.
Here are eight of our favorite life lessons from animated films.
1. Pinocchio (1940): Listen to Your Conscience
People, particularly little wooden people, face a lot of temptation. It’s so very enticing to skip school and find a Pleasure Island all your own, where you can drink and play pool to your heart’s content. It all seems so enticing—until you start to grow longer ears and a tail and hee-haw like a donkey.
Yes, such shortsighted thinking leads right to the salt mines, as poor little Pinocchio painfully discovered. Had he listened more intently to Jiminy Cricket, his diminutive, dapper-dressing conscience, he might not have turned so mule-headed. Once our wooden wonder stopped pining for forbidden pleasures and started listening to his guardian insect, things got a lot better. Well, at least until the whale came along.
But even Monstro proved to be a momentary blip in Pinocchio’s quest to be a real boy. The film shows that we’re not really human until we stop living for ourselves and sacrifice for someone else. Thanks, Jiminy.
2. Dumbo (1941): Different Is Good
If Dumbo had been born in an age in which beautiful elephants were featured in “Sexiest Pachyderm Alive” spreads and perfection was just a plastic surgeon away, he might never have flown. His image-conscious handlers might have whisked him away, given his ears a quick bob, and made him look just like all the other elephants.
But Dumbo had to keep his huge, awkward ears—and what a blessing that he did. Turns out, they were way cooler than anything found on Facebook. Without his oversized ears, he would’ve been a perfectly normal elephant. With them, he became a perfectly wonderful one.
3. Peter Pan (1953): Find the Child in You
He was the boy who wouldn’t grow up. Forever young, forever brash, forever wearing that silly hat, Peter Pan showed us what eternal youth looked like—and, in the end, it looked rather boring. How many times can you fight Captain Hook before the shtick gets tired? Perhaps that’s why Peter liked Wendy so much. She was so … adult.
But if the eternal child secretly longs for maturity, adults can’t shake loose the child lurking inside us, either. Dig underneath our duties and deadlines, our multivitamins, and steamed broccoli, and we’ll still find a desire to pick up a wooden sword and go dig for buried treasure. Sure, maybe it’s unlikely we’ll dig up a chest full of Spanish doubloons in our backyard, but if we give the child in us just a little bit of rein, we might uncover an unexpected smile. And that’s treasure enough.
4. The Jungle Book (1967): Make Good Friends, Find Your Strength
By all rights, Mowgli should have lasted all of thirty seconds. Abandoned in the jungle as an infant, he was the equivalent of a light packaged snack for any number of beasts lurking among the leaves. Instead, the tyke was adopted by a company of wolves, educated by a black panther, and befriended by a bear, all out of the kindness of their wild souls. Even a quartet of Beatle-esque vultures found time to help—between songs, of course.
But as fortunate as Mowgli was to have such friends, they couldn’t alone ensure his survival, not with the fearsome tiger Shere Khan hunting for his head. But while the boy lacked any sort of real strength, speed, or jungle sense, he also lacked the animal’s traditional fear of fire. And that proved to be the difference between life and death.
The message of The Jungle Book is, thus, twofold: cultivate friendships—good, sincere friendships that will carry you through your darkest journeys. But also search inside yourself for your own secret strength. It’s in there, if you look, and it may help light your way.
5. Yellow Submarine (1968): All You Need Is Love
You gotta give credit to the Blue Meanies for one thing: they get straight to the point. They didn’t give their society a PR-friendly name, like, “The Democratic Union of Cornflower-Hued Personages.” They’re blue and mean—no need to sugarcoat it. Their WMD was a glove called “Glove.” They despise beauty, happiness, song, and goodness. So why make an excuse to obliterate beautiful, happy Pepperland when its very goodness is reason enough?
“Pepperland is a tickle of joy on the blue belly of the universe,” the chief Blue Meanie says. “It must be scratched.”
But all the blueness of the universe couldn’t squelch the song of the film’s psychedelic Beatles, and Pepperland just needed a little song from them to bring back its color and animate it once again. The music—and, by extension, love—was so powerful that even the Meanies themselves began to sprout flowers.
Cute piece of fiction, right? Love might conquer Glove, a cynic might say, but it can’t help the world in any meaningful way. Yeah, tell that to Jesus, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Wars may come and go, but real change is made through love.
6. Finding Nemo (2003): Parents Are Crazy—in a Good Way
When it comes right down to it, the ocean is no place to raise a child. Most baby fish, frankly, have the life expectancy of an Amazonian snow cone. But, if you’re a fish, what can you do? Move to Iowa? Single dad Marlin doesn’t have the money—or the respiratory structure—for such a move. He and his son, Nemo, just have to make the best of it, and Marlin is determined to make sure his little boy stays out of danger.
Alas, danger decides to swoop in for a visit anyway, snagging the poor little flipper and swooshing him far, far away, and ever-cautious Marlin must make a ludicrously dangerous trip to save Nemo, going places perhaps no clownfish has gone before.
The remarkable thing about Finding Nemo is that most parents, if they were standing in Marlin’s scaly shoes, would like to think they’d do the very same thing. Parents tend to be pragmatic, perhaps even boring, creatures, but they’ll do practically anything to protect their kids and ensure they’ll not just survive, but thrive. How else can you explain $40,000-a-year preschools?
7. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009): Accept Responsibility
Midlife crises are never pretty. But they’re particularly difficult when your life expectancy is seven.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with Mr. Fox’s life: He has a wife, a son, a comfortable burrow, and a reliable job. But writing columns for the forest paper lacks the pizzazz of his younger days—the days when he was a champion Whack-Bat player and a notorious chicken hunter and, well, simply fantastic. If foxes bought sports cars, Mr. Fox would surely be in the market for one.
Alas, Porsche doesn’t make 911s for foxes, so instead Mr. Fox begins moonlighting on the sly—as a hunter.
This underappreciated stop-motion classic doesn’t have a happy ending, precisely. But it’s a good one. Mr. Fox must, in the end, make a choice. And, like the choices we humans often make, it involves sacrifice. But adulthood is all about making responsible choices, taking responsibility, and pushing forward for the good of others, isn’t it? We all have a little wild animal inside us, but setting that nature aside for the good of others? Now, that’s truly fantastic.
8. How to Train Your Dragon (2010): Dragons Are People, Too
In the land of Berk, Vikings hate Dragons. Dragons hate Vikings. For hundreds of years, the two have slaughtered each other with club-hauling, fire-breathing efficiency and, seemingly, mutual satisfaction. And really, why mess with a good thing?
Hiccup hates dragons, too. Killing one, he figures, would make his Pops proud and help him get a girlfriend. But when he gets his chance, he can’t do it. He lets the beast go, nurses it back to health, and turns it into the best pet a boy could ask for. Imagine a beagle that could fly you to school, impress the chicks, and eat annoying bullies all at once.
“Everything we think we know about you is wrong,” Hiccup says. It’s a reminder of a lesson we should have learned long ago: ignorance breeds fear, and fear breeds anger, hostility, and war. If we try to understand those we’re afraid of before we thwack them with clubs, we all might be better off.
By Paul Asay for Beliefnet