Most "good" films carry some sort of underlying theme in order to improve the story we are watching. Often times, the message is hidden throughout the film, while the story we watch occur is only the lens we see the message through. Disney and Pixar are no strangers to this concept, and it is why they have won two thirds of the Oscars for Best Animated Feature since that specific Oscar was first created back in 2001.
While most Disney and Pixar films are known for having an underlying theme of family and happiness, some of their more recent projects have had much more serious messages. Here are 6 of the most serious topics Disney and Pixar have covered over the past 15 years.
1. Pollution and Obesity
Everyone knows WALL-E, right? That cute and adorable robot that has a limited vocabulary? Going into the film, not many people expected WALL-E to be the serious guilt-trip that it ended up being. Instead of being the cute story of a robot traveling through space, it became the dark tragedy of a robot left on a trashed and uninhabitable Earth who must convince the morbidly obese and lazy humans to return to Earth and fix their mistakes.
The movie gave us a look at the direction we as a species are heading. It showed us how harmful our actions our to the planet and to ourselves. Carrying a similar message as the Lorax, WALL-E was a very serious look at the future our species is paving the path to, and makes us open our eyes to the problems we have with pollution and obesity.
Here's a clip of WALL-E attempting to clean the abandoned and polluted Earth.
2. Political Corruption and Propaganda
While Monsters Inc. carried a central theme of friendship between Mike and Sully, the foundation of the movie had a message of political corruption. Monstropolis seems like the perfect city in the film, except for one issue: they have a major power shortage, which leads to everyone giving Monsters Inc. more money to create more power. Throughout the film, we see constant fear, and even ads, about fearing children as they are deemed as "toxic." There is even an agency to protect the monsters from children.
As the movie goes on, we learn that the entire system is corrupt. We don't come across any political leaders, but we do see Mr. Waternoose, the head of Monsters Inc., who twists the system and completely controls the city with his power. He stands as the epitome of "big business" and corporate greed. Instead of using laughter for energy, which he knows is a lot cheaper and stronger, Waternoose and the others at the top of the system spit out political propaganda to convince the monsters that children are toxic. Meanwhile, he begins kidnapping children to produce more profit just so he can make a bigger profit. It's a perfect example of political corruption, propaganda and corporate greed, and most people didn't even notice it. Way to go, Pixar!
Here is a clip of Waternoose fully releasing his rage and true, greedy motives near the ending of the movie.
3. Physical and Mental Disabilities
Recently, Finding Dory was released, telling the story of Dory trying to fight her Short-Term-Memory-Loss so she could find her family. Both Finding Dory and Finding Nemo had a central theme of overcoming disabilities. In the first film, Nemo had to conquer his physical disability of having a bad fin. He was nurtured his entire life by Marlin to never try anything because of the fin, but thanks to the help of Gil (who had the same disability), Nemo was able to overcome the setback and swim with confidence.
Meanwhile, Marlin and Dory had to conquer their own mental disabilities. Marlin had to overcome his Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD) that began when his wife and kids were killed at the beginning of Finding Nemo. The PTSD causes Marlin to fear for Nemo's life, having lost his other kids, makes him afraid of open water, and makes him terrified to interact with larger fish. Meanwhile, in both films, Dory must conquer her Short-Term-Memory-Loss, or amnesia, to help Marlin find Dory, and to help herself find her family. This is such an interesting concept for a film about fish. I really don't know how Disney and Pixar do it.
Here is a clip of when Nemo first tries to overcome his disability.
4. Sexism and Gender Inequality
While gender social norms are somewhat understandable, they should not be thrust unwillingly upon someone. Brave tells the story of when forcing gender norms is unacceptable. Throughout Brave, we see sexism negatively effecting Merida's life. Right from the beginning, Merida introduces us into her life. She is trained day and night into how to be a "proper lady." While her brothers are free to do whatever they like with no consequences, she is punished for doing anything out of line simply because she is a girl.
By the time she is an adult, Merida still has no control or freedom over her life. She is being forced to marry a man when she does not want to marry anyone at all. She is told she can't hunt because she is a woman, and when danger is lurking, no one will listen to her because she is not a man. This is a very real barrier in life, not only for women back during that period of time, but in today's society as well. Brave is one of my favorite Disney/Pixar movies, and I love how they try to completely break this social norm, especially considering that it contradicts many of the other films produced by Disney.
Here is a clip from Brave of Merida trying to argue against following the gender social norms that are thrust upon her.
5. Bullying and Labeling
For kids, bullying and labeling is a major issue. Whether they are the "nerds" and "losers" being bullied, or the bullies themselves, every kid will be able to relate to the underlying theme of Wreck-It Ralph. The movie follows the story of Wreck-It Ralph, a video game villain who is sick of being treated like a villain. Behind the scenes of his own game, he is bullied by the other characters in the game and treated unfairly just because of the role he plays. Sick of the bullying and labeling, Ralph runs away.
He later meets Vanellope, a "glitch" in a racing game. She is constantly bullied by the other racers in the game, and is banished from being with everyone else just because of a couple technical glitches. Both Ralph and Vanellope seek help from each other, and relate as they are both bullied and labelled. By the end of the film, both characters overcome the labels they are given and stop the bullying by proving the bullies wrong. It is a truly inspiring movie, especially for any kid who is bullied in their own life.
Here is a clip of Vanellope being bullied by the other racers as they destroy her car, who mock her the entire time.
6. Racism and Segregation
Many already know that Zootopia was an animal representation of America in the 1920s. While some of the 1920s references were easy to spot, like the mafia and gender inequality, there was one major theme that was consistent throughout the film: racism. Though racism seems like a big issue today in America, it was even more relevant in the 1920s.
Throughout Zootopia, we see segregation and tension between different species, similar to the way different races were segregated in the 1920s. Right from the beginning, we are introduced to this concept as Nick is kicked out of an ice cream shop because they "don't serve his kind," recommending that he goes back to his "side of town." Even the main character, Judy, is treated unfairly by her coworkers because she is a bunny. Countless different kinds of animals were treated as inferior to others. "Zootopia" may rhyme with "utopia," but it was far from being a perfect place because of the segregation.
Here is a clip from Zootopia where Nick is denied ice cream because he is a fox. Notice the sign in the shop saying, "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone."
Disney and Pixar do fantastic jobs of taking fun films and introducing a serious message with us barely noticing it. While some of their films may be a bit rocky, Disney still has a fantastic track record of creating fantastic films with powerful and moving stories. They almost never fail to entertain.
What serious, underlying message should Disney and/or Pixar cover next? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!