While growing up, like any other 90s Indian kid, we had limited access to animation movies. I have a very distinct recollection of waiting for Sunday Disney hour when we would watch Duck Tales and TaleSpin. A few immensely popular movies like Aladin and Lion King reached the remotest of towns in India and become a part of our childhood. But beyond that, Indian mythological serials like Mahabharata, Ramayana, Shaktimaan, and Chandrakanta filled the void.
Now our kids are growing up with multiple hi-speed internet-powered devices at home and easy access to streaming platforms like Netflix, Prime Video, Disney Plus, Hotstar to name a few. There is no dearth of online content to entertain the budding minds of the young. There are still a few well-made family movies that are a pleasure to watch for the nth time. Here are a few of our favourites, which my kids and the kid in me just loves to watch.
Toy Story (1995)
Synopsis: A cowboy doll is profoundly threatened and jealous when a new spaceman figure supplants him as top toy in a boy's room.
For the uninitiated, this is a Pixar franchise that boasts of a dream run of around 25 years. Toy Story received 3 Oscar nominations. Tom Hanks said in a television interview that he was in tears when he was informed that the scene he had just filmed was the final one for Woody’s character. The simple premise of an old pull-string cowboy rag doll having to compete for the attention of a little boy, after he receives a newer and fancier toy Space Ranger, is an excellent setting for what transpires next. Each toy, be it Buzz Lightyear, Mr. Potato Head, Slinky Dog, Rex, or Bo Peep are assigned characteristics and flaws that make them real and hilarious at the same time. For example, Rex, the T-Rex dinosaur, who due to his inherent qualities should be ferocious and violent has a timid and anxious personality. Buzz Lightyear doesn’t know that he is a toy and thus is behaving like he is on an inter-space mission to save the world. Woody, though the favorite of Andy, is insecure about his position of privilege. The soundtrack of the movie has some of the most unforgettable songs like “You've Got a Friend in Me” and "I Will Go Sailing No More" and “Strange Things”.
The movie in its narrative addresses all our human insecurities and how we often have to rise above our petty differences to attain a stage of peaceful coexistence. Woody believes that every toy's ultimate purpose is the happiness of the child it belongs to. Woody and Buzz start as enemies and finally through their journey of self-discovery and acceptance end up becoming the best of friends, a theme that flows through all the four movies in the franchise. Every time we play the movie for our son, we are unable to walk away even though we have seen it innumerable times. Though Toy Story 3 is probably the most popular, the first movie is where we are introduced to all the characters and their lines “Reach for the sky!”, "You're my favorite deputy!" and “To infinity and beyond!”.
Synopsis: 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen travels to Paradise Falls in his house equipped with balloons, inadvertently taking a young stowaway.
The friendship between a reluctant old man and an eager young boy and the amazing journey they embark upon will make your heart soar above the clouds. The love story of Carl and Ellie begins in their childhood, with their shared enthusiasm for adventure and idolizing of Charles Muntz, a daring explorer. All their lives they work hard and dream about visiting the Paradise Falls in Venezuela. But fate had other plans. The soundtrack of this movie is almost like the storyteller that moves the story forward. My all-time favorite is "Married Life" composed by Michael Giacchino.
The introduction of Russell propels the story forward in a light-hearted note and we see two lonely souls finding solace in each other’s company. This Pixar film beautifully intertwines the bitter and somewhat depressed viewpoint of an old man in his twilight years with the innocent and naive optimism of a young boy scout. Visually, the film is spectacular and the flight of the house to South America is beautifully conceptualized and executed. There are some witty lines in the movie like “So long, boys! I'll send you a postcard from Paradise Falls!”, “I can help you cross your porch?” and “But it's a TALKING DOG!”. Though the movie was about a trip to Paradise Falls, it ends up being about the friendship between Carl and Russell. Carl’s line “It's just a house.” is a beautiful thought about letting go of the past and living in the present.
Finding Nemo (2003)
Synopsis: After his son is captured in the Great Barrier Reef and taken to Sydney, a timid clownfish sets out on a journey to bring him home.
Finding Nemo is one of the few Disney animated movies that has shown disability in all of the three leading characters. The movie starts on a sad note, Marlin losing his wife and all but one of their 400 eggs to a shark attack. Marlin raises Nemo as a single father and the film beautifully portrays post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Marlin’s anxiety, unreasonable fear of the open sea, and over-protectiveness of Nemo. Nemo, a young spirit finds his dad’s constant supervision claustrophobic and yearns for the freedom to explore the open seas. He was born with a shorter fin that makes him stand out amongst other young sea creatures. On the first day of school, as a dare, Nemo ventures out too far into the open sea and is captured and sent to a dentist’s aquarium.
After this, the story is about Marlin overcoming his irrational fear and traveling to Sydney to save his son. Nemo’s struggle for survival and escape from captivity is almost like a coming of age story in itself. Dory, a friendly fish suffering from short-term memory loss, and brilliantly dubbed by Ellen Degeneres, brings the necessary humor and wit into the story. She has some of the funniest lines in the film like “I forget things almost instantly. It runs in my family… well, at least I think it does... hmm, where are they?" and "When life gets you down, you know what you gotta do? Just keep swimming.".
The entire movie is about each character overcoming their fears and succeeding in their quest, despite their disabilities. The story is very inspiring and entertaining for all ages. We even have Nemo and Dorry plush toys at home. Also, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada has a Finding Nemo themed display with clownfishes and royal blue tangs that kids find very exciting. Visually, the film explores under the sea world and almost all the frames are spectacularly colorful and detailed. So many wonderful reasons to watch this film over and over again.
The Lion King (1994)
Synopsis: Lion prince Simba and his father are targeted by his bitter uncle, who wants to ascend the throne himself.
The Lion King is a cult classic and its appeal transcends generations. I remember huddling together in a run-down movie theatre with my friends to watch this movie. Today, I see the same wonder and awe in my son as he watches this movie on repeat. The storyline is very similar to our commercial Bollywood movies, where the good king is killed by treacherous villain, the second in line is tricked into shouldering the blame and renouncing the throne, and finally the return of the rightful heir complete with a bloody battle with the villain. Right triumphs over evil and order prevails. But is this the plot of The Lion King? Yes, and no. The songs of this film hold a mirror to different perspectives of the characters. For example, ‘Circle of Life’ reflects Mufasa’s philosophy of being a just king that upholds the laws that help maintain the fragile balance of life in the jungle. ‘I just can’t wait to be king’ is a playful song that is almost written as a conversation between Zazu and Simba. And who can forget ‘Hakuna Matata’ which preaches the stress-free living in harmony, away from the established rules of the predator and his prey?
Africa comes alive in the film. The rolling landscapes with sunrises and sunsets paint a breathtakingly beautiful picture. The frames were flawless and sublime and hence, when they made the new 2019 film, it was a frame by frame recreation of the original. Simba’s guilt makes him abandon his home and he finds a new life amidst strangers. They teach him a new way of life. But the movie is about duty and fortitude and we see a grownup Simba return to claim his inheritance and avenge his father’s murder. Since the story was conceived in the early 90s, the characterizations are pretty much black and white without any hint of gray. It is a great story with the right dose of philosophy and entertainment.
Synopsis: After Ferdinand, a bull with a big heart, is mistaken for a dangerous beast, he is captured and torn from his home. Determined to return to his family, he rallies a misfit team on the ultimate adventure.
Ferdinand is beautiful in celebrating contradictions we often find ourselves in. It is about refusing to conform to stereotypes society imposes upon us. Ferdinand is destined to become a big raging fighting bull, but he feels none of that adrenalin pumping aggression so required to become a winner. On the contrary, he is timid and soft-natured. He yearns for a simple life amongst nature. The way he cherishes and cares for a little plant holds a testament to his kindness. Due to certain shocking turn of events, his life is turned upside-down and he makes a daring escape from the Spanish bull-training camp and as fate would have it finds refuge with Nina, a loving little girl who lives in a farm with her dad.
With time, we see him grow big and strong but he treads lightly so as to not harm the flowers or other animals of the farm. His soul is nourished with the love he receives and he blossoms into this huge beast with a gentle heart. This peaceful life is snatched away from him and he again finds himself in the captivity of the training camp he had once abandoned. The rest of the story is about the relationships he builds with the other animals, who have spent their entire lives in captivity. He makes them believe about the alternative reality that could be theirs if they all managed to escape. The story quickly paces towards the climax. Its fun to watch the fighting bulls, hedgehogs, a goat, and a small rabbit make their escape through the city leaving the people visibly dumbstruck.
Ferdinand through its story preaches non-violence and questions the glitz and glamour associated with a Spanish bullfights. It sheds light on the life and perils of the bulls raised for fighting in the arena, the cruel fate of the losers and also those who fail to meet the standards. In its climax, Ferdinand despite being a fantastic beast stands down in the face of imminent death and refuses to fight. This film inspires love and compassion in the hearts of the audience. This film has very low ratings on IMDb and still is worth a watch.
I will keep watching these movies with my family. Every time I do, I learn to spot something new. Though these are marketed as kid movies, there are layers in each story that questions, challenges, and breaks stereotypes. If not anything else they teach us values of friendship, family, and acceptance.