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'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.

Undeniably, most teens will have an awakening as they learn through a variety of situations that though important, they are still part of a larger whole.

Throughout the movie, children and adolescents can identify with Woody’s journey to learn that it’s okay not to be the center of attention all the time.

'Ice Age'

For the majority of adults, at least one childhood memory includes making a new friend on the playground.

But in the midst of that elementary school norm, there were always a few kids who seemed to be avoided. Chances are, the generation gap isn’t too wide and today’s kids know a thing or two about playground hierarchy.

Cue Blue Sky’s 2002 release “Ice Age” and three unlikely acquaintances: a sloth named Sid, a mammoth named Manny and a saber-tooth tiger named Diego. Together, the three outcasts make the frozen trek to return a lost child to his mother.

And it doesn’t take much — just life-threatening adventure — for the three protagonists to overcome their differences and become friends.

Being open to meeting new people and forming friendships with even the most unlikely of candidates can foster childhood development.

One area of development that is enhanced is a child’s social adeptness, according to an article from the NYU Child Study Center.

“Research shows that children with friends have a greater sense of well-being, better self-esteem and fewer social problems as adults than individuals without friends,” the article said.

As kids watch a film with lovable, humorous characters encountering archetypes of real-life scenarios such as making friends, they will be more capable of being successful in an increasingly social world.

'Finding Nemo'

“Just keep swimming.”

So goes the sound advice from a delightfully forgetful fish named Dory who embarks with a soon-to-be-friend, a clown fish named Marlin who is scouring the entire ocean for his son in Disney/Pixar’s 2003 hit, “Finding Nemo.”

And it’s wisdom that can be applied through the ages. Though her memory loss is nothing short of hilarious in this family comedy, Dory teaches audience members an important lesson: you can’t give up, even with a disability or challenges.

This lesson extends to a dentist office fish tank, where Nemo is trying equally as hard to get back to his dad after a fateful encounter with the scuba-diving dentist.

Nemo, who was born with a bad fin that he calls his “lucky fin,” won’t let his physical handicap stop him. He too learns a lesson in perseverance and overcoming obstacles.

While not every child has a physical or emotional disability, all will face opposition and can make the choice to keep on swimming.

'Kung Fu Panda'

Audience members who have dared to dream against insurmountable odds may relate with a lovable, tubby panda who worked in a noodle restaurant until he became a kung fu master.

The main character, Po, voiced by Jack Black, finds himself among five of the greatest kung fu masters in the world. He is expected to be the only one able to defeat Tai Lung, a vicious tiger bent on taking revenge on Po's humble city.

Here's the hitch: no one, not even Po himself for a while, thinks he can pull it off.

Dreamwork's 2008 summer hit, "Kung Fu Panda," is all about believing in yourself — especially when no one else does.

Which, according to clinical mental health counselor Karson Kinikini, is a very important feature of human development.

"The development of confidence in one's self is critical to (children) functioning in the rest of their life," Kinikini said. "If they see themselves as capable, it gives them greater confidence to meet their own needs and overcome obstacles and adversity."

As children gain a stronger self-concept, recognizing their own strength and ability, it prepares them for a future of success and happiness.

'Up'

Perhaps one of the most touching and memorable montages in movie history is the opening love story between Carl and Ellie Fredricksen in Disney/Pixar’s “Up.”

Comprising their married life together, the five-minute montage, with a carousel-like score, introduces the idea of death and grief to some of the younger audiences. But what’s more, it teaches the theme of moving on after a loved one is gone.

Carl tries to escape by fulfilling his and his late wife’s dream of traveling to South America. Eventually, Carl realizes that loving his wife was a great adventure.

In an interview with Christianity Today, the 2009 film’s director, Pete Docter, said the film’s message is all about the relationships we create with other people.

“It’s so easy to lose sight of the things we have and the people that are around us until they’re gone. More often than not, I don’t really realize how lucky I was to have known someone until they’re either moved or passed away,” Docter said.

Audiences of children and adults can come to learn the value and importance of loving other people, whether they are friends, family, strangers — or a wilderness explorer named Russell.

'How to Train Your Dragon'

Parents and kids alike had a chance to channel their inner Vikings in DreamWorks’ 2010 blockbuster “How to Train Your Dragon,” as the movie’s hero, Hiccup, finds and trains what his village considers to be the most deadly dragon in the world — the Night Fury.

Hiccup, the scrawny but inventive son of the village leader, wants to prove himself as a fierce dragon slayer. But to do so would go against everything Hiccup believes in.

The unlikely hero must decide how to be true to himself, though it goes against the expectations of the masses.

While most of the world will never have to learn to train a formidable dragon, the movie’s hero teaches audiences the importance of looking beyond what society tells you is the norm.

'Megamind'

"I guess destiny isn't the path chosen for us, but the path we choose for ourselves."

These wise words from the blue, big-headed, super-genius Megamind in DreamWorks' "Megamind," give young audiences hope for a future regardless of their past.

The 2011 hit tells the classic tale of good versus evil. But in this case, evil, embodied by Megamind himself, must decide his own fate.

After defeating the city's hero, Megamind creates a new face of justice to fight. But when his creation backfires, Megamind must choose between defending the city he loves and watching it burn at the hands of another villain.

Though Megamind comes from a past of "evil," he realizes he doesn't have to let it define his future.

Kinikini said this is a concept that is important for kids to grasp.

"When (children) make a poor decision, they are not locked into that outcome forever. They can change in a postive way," he said.

Emmilie Buchanan is an intern for the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Contact her by email: ebuchanan@deseretnews.com or on Twitter: @emmiliebuchanan

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