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Animated films are teaching us about the power of friendship, but is it just a cash grab?

As a reviewer of animated films, I spend a lot of time scouring Rotten Tomatoes to see what other critics are saying about the movies I write about. 

Many of this summer’s mainstream animated releases (“Lightyear,”  the most recent “Minions” movie, and “DC League of Super-Pets”) follow a similar narrative arc. They’re all about the power of friendship. Specifically, they’re about the friends we make along the way: A ragtag group of misfits that are not particularly super or talented. They’re just trying their best to get through the day. 

No matter how good (or bad) the movie is, one of the reviews always has a line about the number of characters in the movie. Then they comment about how it lends itself to a large line of merch and toys. It’s a cash grab, they say, and then they tell us if we can forgive them for that. 

“We need you to join us”

I started to put this trend together during “Lightyear.”

“We don’t need you to save us,” Izzy, a character in the movie, pleads to Buzz (the protagonist who has the super senior energy I am swimming in right now) at a pivotal moment in the film, “We need you to join us.”

Buzz’s main arc in the movie is going from lone wolf to genuine friend. Whether it’s old familiar characters from the Toy Story franchise, heroes from the DC cinematic universe, or the yellow pill shaped minions of “Despicable Me,” the messaging is clear: you can’t do it alone. 

This trend has been coming for a while. Movies like “Frozen,” “Wreck it Ralph” or “Encanto” have edged us away from the traditional, singular hero that saves the day. But in these recent movies, the protagonists who would typically be hero characters are forced to grapple with and learn this lesson on screen.

It’s not not a cash grab – it’s a movie. People make movies to make money. But, I’m more interested to see if it’s also something else.

Animated films teach kids (and adults) about the world, whether we like it or not. Kids watch the same thing over and over until their parents can literally quote you entire 107-minute films by heart.

These films are some of the first messages we get from people outside our family to help us make sense of the world. They might even be our first exposure to different cultures. They have the power to teach us valuable life lessons or tragically misinform us

What are we trying to tell ourselves? 

Why these lessons on friendship? Maybe political divisiveness is scaring us. Maybe adults are worried that their kids are becoming too narcissistic. Or maybe the months of sitting alone at home in 2020 made us realize that the world is too unpredictable to navigate alone. 

But more than something we’re trying to teach kids, I wonder if it’s a plea to ourselves. The world is changing, and you need a team–not always the one you would have chosen for yourself but the one you find yourself with.

That’s what I’m choosing to bring into my super senior year. Maybe I’ll even buy a toy to help me remember that.

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