Hope, Pixelated: Children's Films for the Culture Critic's Soul

Hope, Pixelated: Children's Films for the Culture Critic's Soul

As an English major and former English teacher, I’m pretty attuned to the theme in a story. Whether it’s a book or a movie, I’m almost always composing a literary analysis in my head, and some of the films I’ve been the most thematically moved by have been movies for “kids.” Like kids themselves, I think kids’ movies can more easily remind us of the basic, beautiful truths about being alive.

We’re far from done with winter here in Minnesota, and many of us are struggling to stay positive regarding our current political scene. Anybody up for blankets and cartoons?

Here are a few of my faves. All boast strong, fresh writing and stunning aesthetics. And they’re funny, too. But mostly, I love their themes:  like all good stories, these films help us see ourselves and our lives in a new, hope-filled way.  

So stop watching the news or your Twitter feed and check out these damn kids’ movies. I promise your soul will thank you.

Finding Nemo

Let’s start with an oldie. I’d seen it before, but my love for it was ignited when I watched it anew a few years back with the kids I was nannying for at the time. I’m sure you’ve known a kid or two that yells “Nemo!” at the sight of any orange fish. (The clownfish population was actually legit affected in the years after this movie!) But kids’ character obsessions aside, there is so much substance here.

Contrary to what you’d think, the main character of this film isn’t Nemo; it’s Nemo’s dad, Marlin. Marlin is the ultimate perfectionist: overly serious, a control freak, full of anxiety. (In other words, for me, he's completely relatable.) He spends his time trying to micro-manage any real or perceived risk to Nemo, but when Nemo gets captured (and thus he goes on his quest to find him), he learns a different way to be.

This film is profound in its messages about parenting, but the themes apply generally. We don't know it all. We can't control things. Life is so much better when we embrace our uncertainty and lack of control. It might be a little scary, but it's more fun, more interesting, and really, the only way to live.

The brilliance here is that we have lots of empathy for Marlin. He experiences a terrible life event at the very beginning of the movie, and it ingrains these tendencies in him. So the message isn’t trite - it’s a message of yes, life is scary and bad things can and do happen, and also, we can’t live our lives in fear.

I’m not exaggerating when I say I notice something new whenever I rewatch this movie. (Yes, we own it.) I will never tire of repeated viewings. Finding Dory, its sequel, just came out last summer, and I hear great things about it, too.


My husband and I have loved this movie for years. We pop it in from time to time (yep, we own this one, too) and find ourselves re-energized and inspired every time.

The protagonist is an elderly man named Carl (how’s that for fresh writing?). He’s a curmudgeon that we quickly grow to love, and we soon meet the other central character, Russell, a chubby and enthusiastic Boy Scout. The story is full of humor and poignancy as these two original characters interact, and you’ll likely find yourself feeling lots of feelings throughout the whole film. (The first ten minutes include a ridiculously beautiful montage - anyone that watches it and doesn’t cry is not my true homie.)

The plot incredibly creative, and it’s a lovely mix of the fantastical and the mundane: Carl makes his house float away with a giant bunch of balloons, but he does so to avoid being taken to a nursing home. Thematically, it echoes the classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Our interpretation of life’s events is everything (and the story we tell ourselves is usually not a totally accurate narrative). Furthermore, our lives might not go the way we thought they would, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s what makes our lives beautiful.

In its year of release (2010), it had the rare honor of being nominated for both Best Animated Film and Best Picture. My husband raves about it to anyone who will listen. He’s actually next to me at the moment. “Honey, I’m writing about Up.” “Best movie ever.”

See Up if you haven’t, like right now.


You guys probably haven’t heard of this movie. I know it’s obscure but bear with me.

Really, though - this movie is really well done. And it’s resonated like no other: its sales far surpass any other animated film ever made.

Thematically, it’s pretty open - an English teacher’s dream. But more than anything, I think the wide appeal has to do with the character of Elsa and her famous song. The popularity of Brené Brown’s work demonstrates that vulnerability and shame are a major component of the zeitgeist. Elsa embodies this. She sings (in a different song): “Don’t let them in, don’t let them see / Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know.” We’ve all felt or feel this way; it’s called being human. This piece in the New Yorker agreed: “Everyone could interpret her in a unique way and find that the arc of her story applied directly to them. For some, it was about emotional repression; for others, about gender and identity; for others still, about broader social acceptance and depression.”

Regardless of your specific interpretation (I’ll let you craft your own literary analysis), the movie is filled with goodness. The songs are musical quality, the writing is clever and funny, and princess-story stereotypes are flipped for refreshing alternatives. (Feminists rejoice: It essentially has two female protagonists, and it passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.)

If you have any reservations about seeing Frozen, just let ‘em go. Yeah, you saw what I did there.


Let’s round out this list with the film that was recently awarded "Best Animated Feature of 2016." Boom.

We saw this in the theater last year. I had randomly heard it was good, so I expected to enjoy it, but that wasn’t what happened. Instead, I was blown away by this movie.

It’s a kids’ movie about race. And a well-done one, at that.

For some reason, I did not know that going in. Immediately upon exiting the theater, I pulled out my phone, wondering people were saying, as I hadn’t heard any buzz. I read a bit about it and then proceeded to text several like-minded friends to see if they’d seen it. And of course, my husband and I discussed it all the way home. Blown away.

I know. I’d be skeptical too. I was shocked that Disney took on the topic of prejudice and racism - and did it with such finesse. I’m telling you - it’s impressive in its depth and nuance. So much good stuff. Since the heart of American film criticism is Amazon.com, I’ll let this random reviewer speak:

“When I went to see this film, I expected the usual Disney ‘talking animal’ movie, some fun moments, and pretty animation. What I did not expect was a story that deals with some very uncomfortable truths about our world, brilliantly told in a way that anyone can understand and that are woven into the plot, rather than beating you over the head with the message. I did not expect such a wonderful, strong, well-written female lead. I did not expect the main characters to not have a forced, shoehorned-in romantic subplot.”


Speaking of forced romantic subplots, that’s actually a refreshing thing about all four of these films. Romantic relationships play a very minimal (if any)  role in all these narratives. Nothing against love, but there’s a lot more story out there, ya know?

So grab a hot beverage, cozy up with one of your favorite humans (kid or adult), and fill up on some thoughtful, hopeful animated goodness. I promise you these movies won’t disappoint.

Talk to us about your favorite hopeful and well-crafted kids’ movie in the comments!


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