Animated movies has always been mostly intended for kids. They are taken as colorful mediums to entertain youngsters. Most cater to the whimsical imaginations of a child. Even to the point of pandering to illogical plots or tasteless comedy. Some master the art of weaving socio-political themes into engaging stories. And what’s more amazing about animated movies is the fact that they mirror or project their writers’ vision of reality that there are times that animation has shown us environmental issues before they became prominent in news.
Aside from documentaries, environmental crises show in live action dystopias such as Hunger Games, Mad Max Fury Road, Maze Runner and in disaster movies such as The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. Here filmmakers wove human behavior, ecological changes, and catastrophic failures of managing resources into stories with environmental themes. But it is rare for movie studios to produce flicks that will teach children to be aware of their environment and their role in it. But when they do, even silly and unpolished executions show kids that the climate is something to care about. Animated movies with insightful environmental themes will challenge the way adults and children think and expand their views of the human experience in our blue planet.
Within these animated movies are the two theories of the modern ecology movement: primitivism and futurism. For primitivists, we need to go to a back-to-basics approach with nature. Then futurists believe using technology with responsibility to one’s environment will help deliver humanity and the natural world from hardship. And animation transcends these abstract ideas into workable messages for children through the instances they show how people can respond to environmental crisis.
Animated movies are not just to entertain, but they can also be gems that inform or compel kids and adults to think and act about their relationship with nature. Here I give you some of the times animated movies predicted environmental crisis and shown them to kids – before they were reported in a global scale. These movies show potential or already existing environmental crisis.
1. Toxic wastelands – Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Nausicaa’s story is set in a toxic wasteland wherein a small community of eco-friendly people exists with renewable energy while the rest of the planet has become toxic and home to the giant insectoid Ohmus. The young princess struggles in her quest for a peaceful solution in a conflict between warring states, particularly one which seeks to use violence against the Ohmu. This Hayao Miyazaki classic animated movie has a happy ending wherein humanity and nature are able to coexist in harmony. But the setting of the predecessor of the Studio Ghibli movies is very grim – a world polluted by man’s desire to dominate nature based on hierarchy and destruction. Amid the colors and riveting scenery lies the warning that Earth could also turn into this dystopian land lest we learn to adopt a cooperative relationship to the natural world.
2. Garbage-filled planet – Wall E
Disney takes us here for a ride towards 700 years in the future. But it’s not the glitz and shiny of the sci-fi futurism. Rather, the 2008 Pixar flick shows Earth as a deserted, trash-covered ghost town. We see it through the brown robot, Wall-E who tends the earth, sorting and piling trash in rows.
Instead of the Earth, humankind in the movie lives in space ships in the outer space. The striking point of this theme is its nuance to the 21st Century wherein technology is at the forefront of human progress, even at the cost of nature itself. In fact, The sheer abundance of waste in this animated movie reflects the overconsumption of modern life. The wasteland which Wall-E lives in even resembles landfills filled too much with plastic and other waste, a seemingly reminder of where it all started. Wall-E and his adventures drive a stark nuance to present-day problems with waste management and human instinct to run from created problems in nature. Many reviewers and critics cite Wall-E to be the definitive movie talking about the dangers of waste and how this wasteful lifestyle we are immersed in will lead to a garbage-filled planet not fit to live in.
3. Overfishing and plastic death for marine life – Happy Feet
Happy Feet, Warner Brothers’ animated movie released in 2006, shows the plight of marine life, particularly the penguins of the Arctic. Mumble’s adventures are fun and inspiring in the sense that it is okay to be different from the rest of the herd. But the setting and external conflicts here are environmentally-driven.
First, the penguins suffer from scarcity of fish due to implied overfishing. Then before it was even news, bam marine death by plastic! One of the protagonist’s friends adorns himself a set of plastic six-pack rings as a necklace before choking from that trash in a later scene. Happy Feet is a fine story that educates and inspires environment awareness in a movie mainly about a dancing animal. This animated movie also shows an ending society could follow through. Above all, we need to follow animals home to see their problems and move to correct the wrongs human activities have done.
4. Corporations and big institutions threatening natives – Avatar
James Cameron’s Avatar may not cater exclusively to children due to its mature material. But this 2009 computer animated movie that grossed over a billion dollars in the box office tells a story of conflict with environmental themes. Although critics lambasted its many plot similarities with beloved classics such as Dancing With The Wolves, they concur that Avatar is a parable of the fight between natives and the greater society and its institutions.
The story of Na’vi people mirrors the struggles of indigenous peoples all over the world. Like the Na’vi, they are beset with corporations and businesses who seek to conquer their land. This movie also shows the Na’Vi’s gentle respect for the environment and their ultimate reliance to nature. Interwoven in the romance of the protagonist and a Na’vi princess is the warning how greedy human nature can destroy a planet itself. In fact, the Amazon rainforest, being burned by clearing operations from businesses and companies who seek to use the land for economic gains against the will of the one million natives who seek to protect the area, shows the real message behind this movie.
5. Militarized abuse of nature – Princess Mononoke
Studio Ghibli, as a Japanese giant in animated movies, weaves a breath-taking tale of the complex relationship between human progress and nature in Princess Mononoke. The conflict of this film, in fact, presents itself in the form of a war between nature spirits and people who want to develop natural resources for societal progress using militarized forces to fight nature itself. It’s dark, grim, but also deep in its take of the multiple perspectives of the conflict between nature and human activity. The multi-faceted plot shows that industrialization and economic progress is a problematic matter.
The pragmatic Lady Eboshi, leader of the steel and gun-clad industrialists who plunder the mountain for its iron ores, shows two sides. First she is ecocidal and profit-driven. Then she also gives work opportunities to the vulnerable outcasts of her society – prostitutes, runaway soldiers, lepers. But the titular heroine, Princess Mononoke who was raised by wolf gods, sees humans as the poison of nature who destroy everything they touch. At the same time, this animated movie shows that militarized abuse of nature for economic progress is part of human society’s journey to progress.
Princess Mononoke is a masterpiece of animated storytelling with environmental themes. Here Miyazaki depicts nature as a balanced world unjustly destroyed by human progress but also uncompromising in traditional ways. We see the characterizations of a flawed humanity and a vengeful environment over the fight for living space. In this animated movie, the climate crisis of the destruction of nature under man’s militarized abuse compels viewers to reflect whether to progress by reducing the vitality of nature is really the best progress for humanity itself.
6. Animal smuggling leading to extinction – Rio 1
Rio, a musical animated movie about an American-raised Spix Macaw, discusses the issue of animal smuggling. It shows how exotic birds fall captive to smugglers and loggers who destroy their habitat for profit. What’s interesting here is the way this film portrays the dying blue macaw species. Native to South and Central America, the Spix’s Macaw was a critically endangered species, at the time of the movie’s release. Their suffering came from burning, logging, grazing of the caatinga, introduction of invasive species in the early 19th Century, and hunting from 1970s to 80s.
But the sad part about this animated movie? Despite the increased public awareness towards the blue Spix Macaws, the entire species was declared extinct in 2018.
7. Loggers destroying the Amazon forest – Rio 2
The sequel to the aforementioned animated movie delves deeper into the lives of wildlife in Brazil. This time, the Amazon dwellers. Here, as Blu and Jewel reunite with wild macaws, they cross in conflict with a human corporation threatening to destroy the rainforest for capitalist profit. The naturalists, symbolizing the scientific community, help urge the government to stop the destruction of the Amazon by evil industrialists.
The director of Rio 2 said in an interview that nature is one of the most important things for us but its current state isn’t very good. Indeed, it isn’t very good. The struggles of the animals in the animated movie parallel the real-life struggles of the millions of species in the Amazon rainforest. However, unlike the triumphant indigenous creatures in Rio 2, the animals in the Amazon are helpless against the wanton destruction of industrialization of Brazilian logging and agriculture industries. To watch Rio 2 again leaves you in melancholy as you gasp at the sheer damage of the burning Amazon rainforest today.
8. A tree-less world – Lorax
Deforestation for the sake of corporate greed follows the story of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. It tells the stark grim tale of a world gone gray and polluted because of too much industry. A boy listens to an evil Once-ler who now lives in misery over a world he once discovered as colorful and abundant in natural resources.
In particular, he cut off Truffula trees which produce Thneed. He expanded and expanded production of this product against the protests of the Lorax who care for the trees’ preservation. The Once-ler ignores the Lorax’s calls for the trees’ significance in the balance of the world, all in favor of money from people who consume Thneed products.
However, the Once-ler’s prosperity doesn’t last long. Soon animals flee the place because they can’t survive without enough trees. Then when the Once-ler orders the last Truffula tree to be chopped down, he finds his business production halt abruptly. He found himself abandoned in a grim, tree-less world which he created with his own greed. Lorax ends with the Once-ler’s gift of the last Truffula tree seed, in hopes that the boy could bring back the trees.
Seuss is not subtle at all in this tale that proves timeless with its subject matter. Years ago, he wrote this tale as a warning against unchecked corporate greed. And still, the Lorax sees its plot paralleled in real-life environmental crisis. In fact, many people on social media point to the burning Amazon as the direct real-life story from Dr. Seuss’ environmentally-minded tale. With the Amazon burning too much and endangering the entire planetary equilibrium, it is easy to be horrified at the possible future of Earth turning into the Once-ler’s ruined tree-less world.
9. Animals getting into human residences due to destruction of their habitat – Over The Hedge
The 2006 animated movie Over the Hedge shows the plight of forest animals that wake up to a destroyed home after a long hibernation. They try to survive life with half their forest gone through stealing food from humans who live in the suburban neighborhood where their home originally lay. Here, there is no mistaking the fact that human development has caused animals to move into human habitats but humans try to drive away the very beings which they, by living in the developed area from the destroyed forest, caused to be homeless in the first place. It speaks of how we should interact with animals and the natural world in general.
10. Capitalist pollution leading to one forgetting one’s nature itself – Spirited Away
Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki’s award-winning classic animated movie, tells the tale of Chihiro and her encounters with the mystical nature of her world. When it comes to environmental subtext, Miyazaki is a long-time master. He weaves two particular symbols of environmental issues. These are the characters of No-Face, the stink spirit and Haku, the dragon water god.
No-Face, originally thought to be a stink spirit, first appears as a symbol of overconsumption and capitalism. After forcing itself into the bathhouse, it showers the bathhouse employees with too much gold. Then eats those who get too close to it. Later, as No-Face bathes in the largest tub, Chihiro sees a sort of thorn sticking out of its side. With the help of the whole bathhouse staff, they discover No-Face not as a stink spirit but a river spirit ruined by the pollution in his waterway. Out of No-Face came an endless stream of trash from garbage to car tires and a bicycle. Once he is clean of all these trash, No-Face returns to his dragon form and flies away. No-Face represents the environment that can be corruption by wasteful human pollution.
Next, Haku. Haku’s character is one that suffers from forgetting his past. In the end, Chihiro learns that Haku is also a river spirit, called Kohaku. The Kohaku River was destroyed by the development of a human apartment system in its place. Here, Spirited Away warns viewers about the dangers of progress and the possibility of losing the integrity of upholding nature itself. Haku’s plight shows the danger of losing one’s connection with one’s self and nature. Spirited Away ultimately sends a message that we should use the environment while respecting our original connection to it.