We Need to Talk About Cartoon Parents
Junior Knows Best: How a troubling trope has taken over contemporary animated movies
By some measures, the heroine of Disney’s latest mammoth hit, Moana, has a pretty ideal family. She has both parents, to begin with — a rare advantage for a Disney heroine, or the young protagonist of any Hollywood animated film.
What’s more, both Dad and Mom are likable, sympathetic characters who enjoy pretty good relationships with their daughter. This is a big improvement on How to Train Your Dragon’s Hiccup and Stoick the Vast or The Little Mermaid’s Ariel and King Triton (to pick two other animated films with protagonists whose fathers are the leaders of their people).
In one crucial way, though, Moana’s relationship with her father is very much like Ariel’s relationship with Triton and Hiccup’s relationship with Stoick — and it’s something they have in common with a lot of animated protagonists, especially over the last decade or so. (The Little Mermaid is a sort of forerunner to this trend.)
Moana feels drawn to the ocean, as Ariel is attracted to the surface world and as Hiccup is compelled to try to understand dragons rather than kill them. Each protagonist’s father disapproves of these aspirations; in fact, they lay down ultimatums: Moana, no going out on the ocean; Ariel, no venturing near the surface world; Hiccup, kill that dragon.
These ultimatums aren’t simply the demands of one father for his own child, but represent broader social norms. None of Moana’s people are allowed to sail past the reef; all contact between humans and merfolk is forbidden; all Viking warriors are expected to kill dragons as a coming-of-age ritual.
In each case, the child defies the ultimatum — and here’s the crucial bit: In the end, the child’s aspirations are vindicated, leading not only to a paternal change of heart, but to a revolutionary breakthrough in the social status quo.
By venturing far out on the ocean, Moana saves her people, with such transformative results that the old rule is reversed and Moana’s people, who have been sedentary for generations, return to seafaring. King Triton realizes that Ariel will only be happy with Prince Eric, and suddenly humans and merfolk are fraternizing at their wedding. Hiccup’s dragon-riding skills save his people, radically transforming them from a society of dragon-killers to dragon-riders.
If this pattern were limited to three films over the better part of 30 years, it might not warrant much attention. In fact, it has become one of the most familiar, even overused, plot devices in contemporary animation. Negative parental stereotypes in animated movies have been with us for a long time, but the ascendancy of this particular trope is a relatively recent development.
- Happy Feet: Mumbles’ father Memphis is scandalized by his son’s aberrant penchant for tap-dancing instead of singing like all other penguins. The penguin elders, too, condemn Mumbles’ “freakiness,” exiling him. In the end, Mumbles’ dancing saves the day, and the whole colony celebrates by dancing.
Two years later Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa recycled this exact plot arc, with Alex the lion as the dancer who brings shame on his mortified father before triumphantly saving everyone with his crowd-pleasing moves.
- Ratatouille: Remy’s father is hostile to his culinary aspirations and maintains that humans and rats can never live in peace. He insists that Remy return to the colony, but Remy follows his dream. In the climax, realizing how much Remy’s dream means to him, Dad marshals the entire colony to assist Remy in preparing an important meal. The film ends with Remy and his human partner Linguini opening a new restaurant with the rat colony peacefully coexisting in the roof.
- Peak Junior Knows Best was probably 2012, when Brave, ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania all hit theaters in the same year.
Brave played with the trope, with Princess Merida, after strenuously objecting to Queen Elinor’s expectation that she marry one of three suitors in accordance with tradition, having a change of heart and deciding that she had been selfish — just in time for her mother to come around to her view. Prompted by Merida and Elinor, the clans decide to “break tradition” and allow young people to marry whomever they choose.
ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania, meanwhile, offered mirror scenarios: a regular-guy dad who resents his son talking to dead people vs. a dead father who objects to his daughter dating a regular guy. By the end, both fathers are enlightened; the vampire dad accepts his human son-in-law, and the regular dad tentatively says hello to his late mother’s ghost.
- The following year, the trope got perhaps its quintessential parental archetype: the literal Neanderthal father in The Croods. Of course Grug’s daughter Eep is also a Neanderthal, but she suffers from a trait Grug regards with extreme prejudice, curiosity — and that’s before a literally more evolved modern human boy comes into their lives, wowing Eep with his creativity. At last even Grug, after many humiliating failed attempts, enters the age of innovation with an invention that works (however implausibly, and thus arguably condescendingly).
Clueless father figures who don’t understand the passions or concerns of their offspring aren’t all created equal. They can be implacably stern, like Abbot Cellach in The Secret of Kells, with his misguided zeal for building his wall and opposition to Brendan assisting with the making of the Book of Kells. Or they can be sweetly oblivious, like Po’s adoptive father, Mr. Ping, in Kung Fu Panda, who can’t fathom his son dedicating his life to anything but noodles.
At their worst, parents can be incorrigibly moronic, like Lord and Lady Portley-Rind in The Boxtrolls, possibly the most worthless parents in animation history. Or they can be woefully misguided, like the royal parents in the prologue of Frozen, wrongheadedly trying to raise Elsa to “conceal, don’t feel,” instilling in her seeds of conflicted self-loathing (with some success, which is why Frozen isn’t a Junior Knows Best story — because she doesn’t).
Even my beloved Studio Ghibli isn’t immune. Ponyo, Miyazaki’s riff on The Little Mermaid, features a magical submarine father who is just as misguided in his efforts to control his offspring and keep them from discovery as King Triton. (In this version the heroine’s sublime mother plays an important mediating influence.) Spirited Away isn’t exactly a Junior Knows Best story, but it still has pretty unsympathetic, clueless parents.
There are exceptions, from The Incredibles and The Princess and the Frog to Inside Out and Finding Dory. There are marginal cases, like Tangled, where Rapunzel’s true parents are archetypally good but only make cameo appearances, and Rapunzel’s only filial relationship is with a manipulative, evil foster mother who literally sings Mother Knows Best.
Occasionally a film subverts the trope, like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs pitting Flint Lockwood’s lumbering, taciturn father against the son’s popular breakthrough — only to reveal that the old man is right about the dangers of Flint’s invention. There aren’t many of these, though.
Junior Knows Best stories aren’t automatically bad. Many of the films I’ve mentioned I like — some of them a lot. I don’t expect animated heroes to have uniformly ideal, harmonious family lives. It’s not realistic — and it doesn’t make for good drama, which needs conflict. The ubiquity of the pattern, though, is striking.
A common note in these stories is parental caution: concern for limits and boundaries which children must break through. The caution nearly always runs the same way; we don’t get stories of parents encouraging cautious children to face their fears. Nor (Cloudy With Meatballs aside) do we get stories in which parental cautions turn out to be warranted. The parents are always the cautious ones — and they’re always wrong.
Could this be a response to overly vigilant helicopter parenting? A way of expressing or responding to the frustrations or anxieties of a generation raised with bubble-wrapped childhoods?
If so, it may be noteworthy that helicopter-parenting anxieties are most clearly expressed in what is not a Junior Knows Best film: Finding Nemo. True, Marlin has to learn to let go and give Nemo room to take risks. But Nemo’s big moment of defiance has disastrous consequences. Finding Nemo challenges both the father and the son to learn and grow; it isn’t about how Nemo follows his heart and Marlin is wrong. (Something similar could be said of Inside Out, and to an extent of Brave, though the moral there is muddled, likely because of the film’s troubled development.)
A key to the trope is the pattern of challenging social norms. Junior Knows Best stories are largely about parental prejudices: against outsiders, dragons, artists and oddballs. Or they’re about tradition — and tradition, in a contemporary animated film, exists solely to be broken and discarded. Any time a cartoon authority figure says something like “It’s just the way things are” or “It’s the law of the pack,” you can be infallibly certain that by the end of the movie it will all be completely different.
A couple of years ago, I might have framed this theme of social revolution largely in the context of gender-identity theory, gay rights, hatred of homosexuals, etc. — and indeed that is rather clearly a subtextual concern in some of these films, notably Happy Feet, Madagascar 2 and Frozen.
In light of the new prominence of white nationalism and the so-called alt-right in national politics, though, I’m inclined to see the pattern of challenging prejudices and discarding traditional ideas in a broader light, encompassing racism, sexism, nativism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and so forth, without excluding gender-identity concerns.
Sometimes parents have blinkered or backward attitudes. Sometimes children are wiser than their parents. Not usually. Usually, whatever their faults, parents know better than young children. With age, experience and fully developed frontal lobes comes some increase in wisdom, perspective and judgment — even if this is often more evident to adults (who, after all, remember being adolescents) than to many adolescents.
Tradition, likewise, deserves a better rap than it gets nowadays. Human tradition isn’t infallible, but there’s usually something to be said for the accumulated wisdom of a culture, even if it takes each generation a while to recognize it.
Which brings us to one of the functions of stories: to help us grasp truths that are beyond our experience or that we haven’t fully assimilated; to help us grow, to become larger than what we are.
I’m not saying I want a steady diet of animated stories about foolish children learning just how wise their parents are and embracing tradition. I am saying that a steady diet of stories about hidebound parents realizing just how enlightened their children are and dispensing with tradition is a problem. Ten years of this trope dominating animated family films is more than enough. Other types of stories are possible and even in a way necessary.
Parents don’t have to be functional antagonists. Children need at least some stories with reliable, trustworthy parental figures. They need stories with protagonists who grow, learn and change in ways that don’t involve heroically defying their parents — even stories about protagonists who learn from their parents.
We need more animated parents like Dory’s mom and dad in Finding Dory — not a great film, perhaps, but possibly the best parents in a Hollywood animated film in the last decade or more. We need more parent-child relationships like the ones in Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Inside Out: not perfect relationships, but ones where everyone is trying and everyone, not just Dad or Mom, has something to learn.
The creative people at Disney and Pixar talk a lot about their reverence for Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki. Have they noted the family dynamics in films like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service? Even in Ponyo, Sosuke’s mother is pretty awesome, and his father seems like a good guy, too.
Breaking out of ruts is not something Hollywood does well. I have no great hope that the Junior Knows Best trope will die out any time soon. It’s important, at any rate, to be aware of the problem — and, when appropriate, to make our children aware of it, too.