'Epic' and other animated films become great educators

Published: Thursday, May 23 2013 5:51 p.m. MDT

Amanda Seyfried) doesn't understand the madcap antics of her father, Bomba (Jason Sudeikis), as he searches for a hidden world in "Epic."

Twentieth Century Fox

To enter a reality where widowers travel to South America by balloon-filled houses or a society of minuscule people save the forest, kids across the country simply have to turn on the tube.

And while they’re at it, they may learn a thing or two about becoming contributing members of society.

Because according to Kelly Loosli, director of BYU’s animation program, animated movies provide an effective medium for teaching kids how to become good people.

“When you engage a child in animation, you can convey messages strongly,” Loosli said. “Animation allows kids to drop their guard and go into an imaginary world. The messages come through even more vivid.”

In Blue Sky’s film “Epic,” which opened May 24, audiences of children and adults alike learn the importance of connectivity. All life is linked together; the film refers to this idea as “many leaves, same tree.”

The film's protagonist, Mary Katherine, or MK, is magically transformed into a minuscule size and finds herself among a society of people who are in a classic fight against good and evil as they battle to keep their forest alive. It’s up to MK, a self-proclaimed loner, to find her place in the vastness of humanity and maybe even save the day.

For films like "Epic," the animators are charged with the task of conveying the message through the characters. Loosli said children learn effectively through the performances, and he called fellow animators puppeteers who pull the strings, making the characters appear.

An animator’s job is to create worlds of enchantment, transporting the audience to a different time or place. This is a great way to teach audience members lessons of life and morality so they don’t play out the same drama in their own lives, Loosli said.

“Animation is a great place for drama to play out,” Loosli said. “ ‘What happens if my parents die?’ That’s one of children’s greatest fears. (Animation) is such a powerful place to play out that story so (kids) can find an emotional piece inside of themselves that everything will be OK.”

Children can create an emotional connection to MK, the heroine of "Epic," as she understands that because of that connectivity, she must do her part to lend a helping hand to those around her, especially when they are in need.

The themes woven through children's movies are broad and encompassing.

Here’s a look at some of the values animated films from the past 20 years continue to instill in children today:

'Toy Story'

In Disney/Pixar’s 1995 blockbuster “Toy Story,” kids are introduced to the Tom Hanks-voiced cowboy Woody, the clear favorite of toy-owner Andy.

After a fateful birthday party, Woody must come to grips that Andy’s new favorite is a shiny new Buzz Lightyear. It’s hard competition against a space ranger who stuns objects with a laser and flies.

Woody’s identity crisis is not unrelatable. Most adolescents struggle with a phase of egocentricity, thinking they are the most important, and therefore entitled to the love and praise of the world.

In terms of developmental psychology, this is thanks to combined forces called personal fable, teenagers' belief that their thoughts, feelings and experiences are unique and as a result, make them exempt from others’ empathy, and an imaginary audience where the teens believe the world watches their every move with rapt interest.

Child psychologist David Elkind, who coined these terms, believed that feelings of being the center of attention give way to strong feelings of invulnerability.

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