I’m a grown woman and I’m not afraid to admit it: I like cartoons. When I was younger, I was always drawn to the happily-ever-after stories of Disney princesses, but as I matured, I realized that they don’t all have to be perfect all the time. In fact, I prefer the imperfect ones; the ones that make me cry, or squirm uncomfortably, or even just leave me in thought when the credits roll. I prefer stories that have an environmental impact to them, something that makes a hero even more heroic because he has failed at his task, or hard lessons about family life. Someday, if I’m lucky, I’ll be able to show my child the value of loss as well as victory, and that striving to be perfect is just living with an unattainable goal.
With that in mind, here are a few tv shows and films I enjoy because they don’t just portray the message that everyone wins all the time, and even if they do it’s at a personal cost or because of a lesson learned.
1. Studio Ghibli: an animation studio out of Japan, you may recognize this name because of its association with Pixar and Disney’s John Lasseter. Their first feature was Only Yesterday, a story about an unwed woman who was now too old to be single, according to her family’s strict standards. She spends the movie reminiscing about life when she was 10, and how much simpler it was. The movie brings up young love, periods, old Japan versus new Japan, and antiquated notions of what young women should do, including obeying their elders. It’s a hard look at a modern woman’s Japan animated in the mid 80s, a time when the feminism movement was hitting its peak there. Yes, there are follow-ups like My Neighbor Totoro or Porco Rosso, movies that you would not think had any particular message. But Ghibli, in its cleverness, just makes you think that upon first blush. I can assure you that each one of their films has a strong and vital message worth listening to.
2. Pixar: on the outside, this funny, childish animation studio may seem all sweet and innocent, but if we remember Toy Story, their first feature, correctly, we realize that Buzz suffers from some serious PTSD after the cherry bomb incident and Woody is prone to anxiety attacks. Finding Nemo is a story about a man who nearly loses everything and his realization that he cannot stop it from happening again – he can only change his reaction to it. That’s some pretty hefty cognitive behavioural therapy happening right there. I find that sometimes they do get off track a little – Cars, for example, wasn’t one of their strongest – but when I cried like a baby during my first AND second Brave viewings, I knew they had found their feet again.
3. Despicable Me: Universal really outdid themselves with the original movie and its follow-up. Granted, the sequel was, like all sequels, more laughs and fewer lessons, the thing that made the first movie shine made it shine as well: a man who believes he has no love in his heart and must therefore be evil finds himself suddenly caring, and three girls who have a dream of a perfect family and instead find Gru. It’s an ugly duckling story combined with Annie, and even though the ending is neat and tidy, there are real emotions and real feelings struggled with throughout the movie. Once again here is a man who, when challenged about what he loves most, makes the decision to put his family before his fame. It’s a good lesson to see, particularly in this age of celebrity drive-thru marriages and divorce.
4. Justice League and Justice League Unlimited: okay, so these two tv shows are about super heroes, but don’t just dismiss them out of hand. These two shows in particular deal with some very adult themes, and though they are rated 8+, I would be hesitant to have anyone younger than 12 watching them. They deal with hard issues like trust, failure, war crimes, genocide, and racial purity. In a world where heroes should win all the time by definition, the Justice League takes casualties. They lose sometimes. They fight amongst themselves. They keep secrets. Things end badly for them many, many times. This is when I would say it’s all sunshine and rainbows at the end of the series, but it’s not. If you are a fan of DC comics at all, you’ll know that it never is. These two shows are truer to the comic than any live-action movie I’ve seen revolving around these characters, which is good, because learning that even heroes aren’t invulnerable is a key lesson for anyone.