x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Can animation save the world?

Eco-conscious family movies are a bona fide trend, working to inspire change in our attitudes toward the environment through children.

Twentieth Century Fox's big-screen version of the Dr Seuss story The Lorax envisioned a world without trees.
Twentieth Century Fox's big-screen version of the Dr Seuss story The Lorax envisioned a world without trees.

Over the years, cinema has been a source for many a cultural revolution. Whether it's James Dean in Rebel without a Cause, the Indian epic Sholay, or modern classics such as The Matrix or Avatar, films can inspire people to dress differently, act differently and stay within a cultural zeitgeist long after the theatrical run has ended.

More recently, there have been a slew of Hollywood films aimed at children that promote environmentally friendly messages. Is this simply exploiting a trend, or are these movies capable of being a force for good in our children?

In the past few years, there have been a number of animated films from around the world that promote a message of environmental awareness. This weekend's UAE release, the Belgian-made animation Sammy's Adventures 2, continues the message of the previous film, where the hero Sammy the Turtle travels the globe, observing the damage mankind has done to its home.

In recent weeks, Twentieth Century Fox's big-screen version of the Dr Seuss story The Lorax envisioned a world without trees, ending with the pithy but poignant line: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it's not." This appears to be a rather direct message to the target audience - young children - about the dangers of mistreating the planet.

Just as direct was the 2008 Disney-Pixar blockbuster Wall*E, arguably the first studio movie of its size to send out a cautionary tale about the fate of Earth. The title character, a loveable but lonely robot, is charged with cleaning up the planet after centuries of pollution have made in uninhabitable. Rather than despairing over the world's fate, these films promote a message of awareness; that if enough people are mindful of the planet and its resources, the damage caused by previous generations can be undone.

But why now?

The answer could be that it is a case of art imitating life, rather than any selflessness on the part of film studios. Climate change has been at the forefront of people's minds since the late 2000s, when disturbing scientific findings prompted the global G8 summit, where world leaders met to discuss environmental issues and a plethora of artists, celebrities and pop stars came together for events such as the "Live Earth" concerts held across the world. Since then, terms such as "carbon footprint" and "eco-friendly" have become commonplace in the products we buy or services we use. Put simply, Hollywood cares more about the environment because society does.

So can children be reached on such an important subject? Of course, these movies promote a much more simplified message, but the hope would be to encourage positive environmental habits in future generations. To see whether this is possible, however, we must look at a much darker area: the effect of violence in media on growing children, of which there have been years of substantial research. While writing for the website of Lance Armstrong's Livestrong foundation, the psychologist Ed Donner remarked, "Younger children are still developing their cognitive capacity to differentiate between fantasy and reality. Therefore, preschool and school-age children are more sensitive to the effects of media violence than adolescents."

However, Donner went on to echo the sentiments of the majority of studies in this field, remarking that violent movies alone are unlikely to inspire violence in children, but rather serve as an enhancement to a violent or destructive environment.

Put into a different context, this information provides an answer of sorts for anyone taking a younger viewer to see The Lorax, Sammy's Adventures 2 and other similar films. While viewing these films on their own may not transform your child into an environmentally minded adult, positive reinforcement on the part of the parent or carer can reinforce what the filmmakers are trying to get across, using the actions of the heroes on screen.

Can animated movies help save the world? Not on their own, but with the help of some older movie fans, they can inspire the people who can.

Sammy's Adventures 2 is currently screening in UAE cinemas.


Top 5 environment-themed family films

5 A Turtle's Tale: Sammy's Adventures (2010)

A slightly heavy-handed but well-meaning family film about a young turtle who, during a 50-year journey across the globe, witnesses the extent of mankind's mistreatment of the planet.

4 Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (1992)

An early example of an environmentally conscious family movie, this 20-year-old fairy tale follows a fairy and a human named Zak as they try to save an enchanted forest from destruction.

3 Happy Feet (2006)

Interwoven between the singing and dancing penguins was a very prominent message, delivered by the lead character Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), about humans being aware of the other species sharing the planet.

2 Dr. Seuss' The Lorax (2012)

A plastic world where air is sold provides the setting for this animated cautionary tale, with Danny DeVito providing the voice of The Lorax, who "speaks for the trees".

1 Wall-E (2008)

Probably one of Pixar's finest works, a lonely robot inadvertently saves a destroyed Earth by teaching the remaining humans that it's not too late to start again.