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Family is something we cannot ignore. For many of us, it can be a feeling of love and warmth, a connection to someone and an understanding between a group of blood relatives or, in many cases, people who aren’t related at all. Whether trying to communicate love or failing to, these relationships, or lack of, help to shape who we are as people, leaving a huge impact on our upbringing, morals and actions. Due to the sheer scope of the effects that family has on us, it isn’t wrong to assume the same of fictional characters, animated characters included.
Many animated films deal with the notion of family. We can see the generational divide between father Marlin and son Nemo in Finding Nemo, a divide that, when taken to its confrontational extreme, leads to the pair’s separation and drives the overall plot of the film. It’s about paternal love, similarly to that of The Lion King, a film that establishes the character of Mufasa as a strong father figure to protagonist Simba. This is before having him taken away from the young cub suddenly, throwing Simba into a world of turmoil, again driving the plot of the film. If not for the strong familial bond between the two lions, we would not have had the sadness and development of our hero from his initial introduction to his taking back of Pride Rock.
The Jungle Book, on the other hand, looks at maternal love. Mowgli is sent down the river and eventually cared for by Raksha, a mother wolf who takes him into her pack and raises him as her own, despite the opinions of the other wolves. Bambi, meanwhile, gives viewers one of the best portrayals of maternal love in an animated film. This is by showing viewers the bond between doe and fawn, making them almost inseparable, before giving audiences one of the saddest, most harrowing moments in animated cinema with the death of Bambi’s mother. These maternal relationships again drive both these films forward in their quest for character building and storytelling.
Mulan depicts family in a very different way. It centres on a character looking to find her way in the world and prove herself to her family and meet their expectations of her. In doing so, she manages to find a new family through the friends she meets along her quest, showing audiences that not all family must be bound by blood. Similarly, in the Ice Age film series, we watch an unlikely assortment of creatures join together to form a “herd” as they work towards a common goal, their group growing in size with each subsequent sequel.
Despicable Me touches on themes of adoption within its franchise, focusing on a trio of orphans finding love with an unlikely father figure. Frozen explores a turbulent relationship between sisters, while Brave depicts a similarly rocky relationship between a mother and her daughter. We see in many animated forms that family isn’t always plain sailing. As Tolstoy once wrote, “All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” There is a lot of truth in that. The Incredibles centres on a dysfunctional family as they struggle to deal with daily life, their family drama eventually forcing them together to save the day.
Engaging stories revolve around family drama. In 1999’s Tarzan, we are – as Phil Collins sings – introduced to “Two Worlds, One Family.” This theme of two very different groups bonding and forming a family is again what pushes the plot forward. As evidenced above, we see the topic of family weave its way through the animated medium and into its stories. That’s because what resonates with people is the things they know – be it the love they have or the pain they endure. No matter what form it takes, family is a theme that holds some sort of connection for most viewers. When transferred into animated form, it is something that gives us an understanding of our relationships and ourselves.