October 1, 2016

Mind Over Media: Considering environmental issues in children’s entertainment

FerngullyYou are six years old, and you are terrified. At night, you toss and turn in your bed attempting to banish graphic images from your mind. Alas, they creep back into your thoughts, snatching you from near-slumber and returning you to a state of besiege. During the daytime, you remain paranoid.

When a truck passes on the road and emits a plume of black smoke into the air, you cringe in fear as your imagination likens it to the horrendous scene you saw on television.

But this scene wasn’t in a horror film or a violent gangster movie.  Like other children growing up in the 1990s, you saw the animated movie “FernGully: The Last Rainforest.”

The plot of this 1992 children’s film is relatively simple: magical fairies inhabit a rainforest populated with excessively colorful biodiversity. Humans come to cut down the trees in the rainforest for lumber, and one day a logger accidentally releases an evil spirit named Hexxus from the largest tree in the forest. Hexxus then enslaves the human loggers to do his evil bidding of destroying the entire rainforest.

“FernGully” is credited with beginning the trend of environmental animation, a sub-genre of children’s animated films driven by environmental themes. Such films often inject environmental ideals into character development, visual symbolism and subtext.

Recently, popular films like “Wall-E,” “Over the Hedge,” “Happy Feet” and the reboot of “The Lorax” have modernized and carried on the tradition of introducing environmental activist ideals to children.

Various themes emerge from these films, among them a somewhat deceptive oversimplification and political neutralization of environmental issues.

They also introduce other problematic themes, including catastrophism, the demonization of human beings, dichotomous morality and anthropomorphism.

These films employ kid-friendly techniques like musical numbers and familiar, amicable characters; but in terms of storytelling, they ultimately operate on a basis of emotional manipulation.

Films elicit an emotional response by encouraging the audience to feel a deep investment in the story, the characters, and the outcome. Such a response can hinder the audience’s ability to reason about what they see.

Being emotionally invested can also produce a response to the “call to action” creators incorporate into their media. How a viewer becomes invested in the story is the most important variable in the successful equation of manipulating audience emotion.

Due to the attention children give to animation over other types of film, it is a seemingly useful and appropriate media outlet for communicating important issues to children.

Eric Goedereis, assistant professor of psychology at Webster, comments on how a child comprehends the darker material in these films. “If you’re showing a child some violent/distressing images and he or she doesn’t have the cognitive capacity to process the ‘point’ of the images, I think one could argue that this is probably not the best way to communicate the message,” said Goedereis.

While the writers of this column do not believe we should shelter children from environmental issues and consequences, we also believe that, as media consumers, we must be considerate in how the media we choose to present these ideas through media.

Viewers should be suspicious of films that can imbue feelings of guilt or burden children emotionally. They should seek to support films that are realistic about environmental problems and solutions.

This is also about respecting children; not only encouraging their voices and the development of social ethics, but also recognizing children as thinking human beings who are capable of developing their own ideas.

We must look more closely at the line between education and entertainment. Children are the future, and they will be the generation that deals with the consequences of our pollution, deforestation and climate change.

This is why it is most important that we provide them with the tools to understand the issues through media; tools that not only entertain them, but challenge them to think critically.

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