Watch and learn: the hidden messages in children's movies

Ever suspected Frozen was more than a simple singalong? Have the false promises of Emerald City ever rung alarm bells? Here are nine family flicks that have been mined for underlying meaning

The Secret Life of Pets: black lives matter

Thought the current box office smash was just Toy Story with poodles and hamsters? Think again. A prominent political science professor suggests Chris Renaud’s movie is in fact a hamfisted metaphor for racial oppression. With his cri de coeur of “revolution forever, domestication never”, angry rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart) isn’t just moaning about being kicked out of a warm, cosy cage to roam the streets. Look closely and – maybe – you’ll find a raging furnace of fury centred on the mistreatment of African-Americans by mainstream white society.

Frozen: love is an open (closet) door

As proponents of the Twitter hashtag #GiveElsaagirlfriend have noted, the princess of Arendelle spends most of the Disney fantasy desperately trying to keep a secret she fears will make her a pariah, before finally accepting her true identity in an icy whirl of fearless abandon and kick-ass showtunes. By the end of the film it has been firmly established, with the discovery that sisterly love trumps traditional romance every time, that orange is not the only fruit.

The Wizard of Oz: parable for 1890s America

MGM’s children’s classic may have hit cinemas in 1939, but some analyses put its roots in an even earlier era. The Yellow Brick Road represents the gold standard monetary system, which poor midwestern farmers (represented by the Scarecrow) blamed for turn-of-the-20th century deflation that kept the cost of their loans high. The fraudulent Wizard is a proxy for their profiteering eastern banker nemeses, while Dorothy is the American public, blindly following a false path to wealth and riches (Emerald City) and the Tin Man embodying impoverished industrial workers. No one has quite worked out what the munchkins are supposed to be.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit: portrait of racial segregation

Set at the height of the Jim Crow era, Robert Zemeckis’s pioneering fantasy noir presents a version of LA where “toons” face daily discrimination and are forced to live in their own, segregated district. Christopher Lloyd’s nefarious Judge Doom can be seen as an Uncle Tom figure, a toon in disguise who is driven to terrorise Roger and pals by his own self-loathing.

Coraline: why you shouldn’t talk to strangers

Laika’s sinister stop-motion fable centres on a young girl who discovers a parallel universe through a psychedelic tunnel in her suspiciously gothic new home. On the other side of the wall she meets the Other Mother, who allows Coraline to eat whatever she likes, showers her with attention and generally employs every tactic available to lure the young girl away from her real mum and dad. In the final act, the creature is revealed as a child-killing monster.

The Lego Movie: building the case against capitalism

An easy one, this. Will Ferrell’s evil tyrant is known as Lord Business and spends all his time cracking down on anyone who even whispers of insurrection. Meanwhile, workers are encouraged to blindly embrace an “awesome” consumer-driven lifestyle of overpriced coffee, nights out at chicken restaurants and episodes of the moronic sitcom Where Are My Pants?

The Brave Little Toaster: half-baked tale of Christian suffering

The 1987 animated classic can simply be read as the story of abandoned household appliances trying to find their way back to their master. Another theory goes that the toaster and his friends are really lost souls aiming to win back God’s grace with their intense suffering (involving a horrifying trip to the junkyard that Pixar purloined for Toy Story 3). They are eventually rewarded by being reunited with Him at his new swanky new apartment. Otherwise known as heaven.

My Neighbour Totoro: ticket to the afterlife

Studio Ghibli has officially denied that cute monster Totoro is really some kind of evil death god, transporting 11-year-old Satsuki and four-year-old Mei to the afterlife. But observers have pointed out that the pair don’t have shadows in the film’s final scene, that a catlike bus caught by the siblings boasts a destination panel translating as “path to the grave”, and that essential elements of the plot resemble the 1960s case of a young Japanese girl found dead after losing contact with her older sister. Spooky.

Happy Feet: shameless eco-propaganda

To everyone else, George Miller’s Oscar-winning 2006 animation was about a bunch of lovable emperor penguins whose lives are enriched when they learn how to dance: a kind of Footloose for the cuddly critter-loving under-sixes. To the Fox News brigade, it was simply an animated version of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth: environmentalist propaganda. Anchor Glenn Beck even called for the film to carry a warning alerting unsuspecting families to its “evil” hidden message.


Ben Child

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Top 10 family movies

Time for some wholesome fun – what are the best movies for the whole family to enjoy? From Bambi to Spirited Away, here are the Guardian and Observer critics' top 10

25, Oct, 2013 @2:19 PM

Article image
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a joy but won't hold kids' attention
‘A tumultuous emotional journey’ it might be, but this beautiful Japanese animated film still can’t compete with the likes of Big Hero 6 or Frozen

Josh Strauss

19, Mar, 2015 @3:36 PM

Top 10 animated movies

Moving bits of paper around (the old way) or painting with billions of pixels (the new) has conjured up some of the greatest films of all time. From The Iron Giant to Persepolis, Guardian and Observer critics pick the 10 best

Chris Michael

20, Nov, 2013 @3:07 PM

Article image
Every Studio Ghibli film – ranked!
In a bonus edition, we rank all the animated films – from Spirited Away to Ponyo – by the revered Japanese studio, most of which will be available on Netflix from February

Miriam Balanescu

28, Jan, 2020 @2:12 PM

Article image
Kiki’s Delivery Service review – lovable Studio Ghibli coming-of-age story
This sunny 1989 animation by Hayao Miyazaki broaches the issue of female sexuality more boldly than any Western children’s movie would dare

Steve Rose

26, May, 2016 @4:15 PM

Article image
First sight: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Animation director at Studio Ghibli, makers of Spirited Away

Cath Clarke

07, Jul, 2011 @9:45 PM

Article image
Film review: Ponyo

The new animation from the Spirited Away director is another deeply moving, utterly distinctive work, writes Peter Bradshaw

Peter Bradshaw

11, Feb, 2010 @11:15 PM

Article image
Arrietty – review

The Borrowers turn Japanese as the children's classic is lovingly reworked by the studio that gave us Spirited Away, writes Philip French

Philip French

30, Jul, 2011 @11:05 PM

Article image
Frozen II review – a charming return but the thaw's setting in
Beloved heroine Elsa has a great new song as she heads into the enchanted forest in this funny, likable but underpowered sequel. Is it time to let her go?

Peter Bradshaw

14, Nov, 2019 @5:03 PM

Article image
3 Days to Kill murders Kevin Costner's charisma at the US box office

Jeremy Kay: The Bodyguard should be charged with dereliction of duty: but it does better than Pompeii, which blows hard

Jeremy Kay

24, Feb, 2014 @12:59 PM