I’m 31 years old and childless, so I don’t often go to children’s movies. But two recent films, Disney’s Zootopia (2016) and Pixar/Disney’s Inside Out (2015), are making me think twice. I question whether the label “children’s movies” even applies to them, they’re that sophisticated.
Animated films have long tried to keep parents entertained while they’re in the theatre with their kids. In the past, this involved a lot of corny moralism for the youngsters, and stealthy cultural references for the grown-ups. Toy Story, released in 1995, is among the earliest examples. It explores Woody’s jealousy when a new toy, Buzz Lightyear, replaces him as their owner’s favourite. But only adults will recognize Buzz’s existential crisis upon realizing that he’s “just” a toy. Finding Nemo (2003) is the story of a clownfish father and son who are separated and desperately trying to reunite. In one scene, the sharks form an AA-like support group in an effort to give up fish. Shrek (2001) is so replete with pop culture references — along with a dash of sexual innuendo — that the effect is dizzying.
In Zootopia and Inside Out, adult appeal shifts from the sidelines to the main event. Kids and grown-ups alike are expected to grapple with the complexity of the ideas in the films. Sure, they’re goofy, slapstick and manic. But they’re also insightful, capturing the messiness and moral confusion of contemporary life.
Zootopia takes place in a world that’s a bit like New York and a bit like the Bronx Zoo. The city of Zootopia is inhabited by wild animals — or rather, formerly wild animals. This is the distant future, and even the cruellest predators have evolved beyond hunting and killing. In Zootopia, the lion shares sidewalk space with the lamb; the world’s most predatory animal, the human, is nowhere to be seen.
Judy Hopps, a migrant from the sleepy carrot-farming hamlet of Bunnyville, is Zootopia’s first-ever rabbit cop. The law-enforcement industry, comprised mainly of rhinos and buffaloes, is a tough place for a bunny — a fuzzy-eared David in a world of horned and hoofed Goliaths. But Judy is tough and intrepid, and soon discovers that animals are “going savage,” seemingly reverting to a predatory state. What’s worse, Zootopia’s top cat, Mayor Lionheart, is conspiring to cover up the phenomenon.
When Judy’s story finally breaks, it threatens Zootopia’s way of life. In a city where 90 percent of the population is “prey,” anti-predator paranoia skyrockets. Protests are rampant, evolutionary theories about the inherent savagery of all former predators are suddenly in vogue, and clawed animals are fired from their jobs. For some Zootopians — like Assistant Mayor Bellwether (a sheep) — the new social order provides an opportunity: the city’s weaker animals can exploit public fear to marginalize the strong. But at what cost to Zootopia’s unique way of life?
The film is timely — more so, I’d wager, than its creators expected it to be. It’s almost an allegory for today’s Europe, where terrorist attacks and a spate of assaults in Cologne, Germany, have given anti-refugee parties a narrative with which to justify their nativism and thereby expand their following. (Never mind that the crimes in question weren’t committed by refugees.) It’s equally hard to miss the parallels between Zootopia and the current American election campaign, in which millions of voters, facing stagnant wages and a shrinking job market, have turned to a strongman who believes that the country’s salvation lies in anti-immigration policies.
We westerners (like the Zootopians) pride ourselves on being open-minded, on preferring meritocratic over tribal values. But, Zootopia offers a sobering reminder: in times of social insecurity, the old divisions emerge incredibly quickly. The film, of course, has a happy ending: the real cause of the “savagery” epidemic is revealed, misunderstandings are resolved and inter-species harmony is restored. We humans should be so lucky.
Inside Out takes place in the mind of Riley Andersen, an 11-year-old American girl. The film imagines the human brain as a kind of air-traffic control tower, where five principal characters — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust — attempt to steer their host through difficult emotional transitions. These are hard times for Riley’s family. Having left their Minnesota home, they’re struggling to build a new life in San Francisco.
Riley’s five core emotions make up a platoon of oddballs, with Joy as their peppy drill sergeant. Joy’s only purpose is to make Riley happy, and she achieves this goal mostly by preventing her fellow emotions from spending too much time at the controls. In this respect, she’s a bit like Riley’s parents. “Your dad’s under a lot of pressure,” Riley’s mom tells her. “But if you and I can keep smiling, it will be a big help.”
As life continues to lob curveballs, Riley’s mind becomes increasingly chaotic. The psychic adventures that ensue are as action-packed as Raiders of the Lost Ark and as trippy as Yellow Submarine. In the final act, an unlikely hero emerges: Sadness, who takes control and saves the day. It’s only when Riley allows herself to cry that she can begin to heal.
Inside Out is a tale about the need to acknowledge all of our emotions. That’s a radical subject for a children’s movie, and it’s the reason I loved this film. I was a kid during the heyday of “positive thinking.” (It’s not doing too badly today, either.) As the critic Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her 2009 book Bright-sided, this kind of self-centred positivity “requires deliberate self-deception, including a constant effort to repress or block out unpleasant possibilities.” It’s good that parents and teachers want children to be happy. But sometimes I wish I’d grown up in a culture that treated sadness, self-doubt, regret and longing not as moral failings but as part of a healthy equilibrium. Inside Out nudges us an inch or two in the right direction.
Both movies share a conviction that human life is disorderly — and better off that way. Zootopia shows that the distrust and tension of a cosmopolitan city are preferable to a world in which everybody lives in segregated, homogenous enclaves; for all its faults, Zootopia is a better place than boring old Bunnyville. Inside Out shows that the human psyche can be turbulent, but then again, life itself is turbulent. We’re at our best, the film suggests, when we embrace that messiness.
Simon Lewsen is a freelance journalist and the copy editor for the Walrus Foundation in Toronto.