Tuesday, 10 May 2011

My top 5 animated films with ecological themes

Animated films aren't just for kids! Indeed they are a fantatsic medium to inspire, innovate and express ideas that maybe dont quite hit home so hard in more conventional media. Master animators can bring nature to life in fantastic ways that simply isnt possible without fancy special effects or years of patient camerawork (hats off to the BBC planet earth team), so here are my top 5 friendly animated movies:

  1. Fern Gulley the last rainforest

Some say this Australian/American animated tale was a direct inspiration for James Cameron’s epic Avatar. The plot follows very similar lines, replacing a futuristic alien setting with an Australian rainforest and blue skinned navii with tiny faerie folk. The story focusses on the romance that develops between one of these said faeries (Crysta) and a young human wood cutter called Zak. He is shrunk by faerie magic and so gradually comes to understand his place in the natural world.

This film is probably the most heavy handed in its ecological message, humanity is seen as an aggressive domineering force and oil driven technology is demonstrated to destroy the natural world (an awaken ancient evil spirits!). The ideas of ecological connectedness and waste recycling are also strongly stressed here. This film takes a more direct approach to many of the others on this list often explaining these ideas in very simple and straightforward terms, yet still doesn’t quite descend into and ecological rant. In addition the harms of deforestation and pollution, there is also a critique of animal experimentation. The bat character, played by Robin Williams, has been the victim of animal testing and is entertainingly crazy as a result of some kind of electroshock treatment.

The film is charming and engaging, raising awareness of key ecological issues, but is far from a masterpiece of animation. I think a great film for children, but the rest of the list is made of sterner stuff.

  1. NausicaƤ valley of the wind

(I so want one of these!)

The first Studio Ghibli film on my list, this 1984 Japanese animated film has lost none of its charm or presence. If anything it pre-empted much of the modern environmental film making, introducing the idea of a world that is both beautiful and deadly to humans, and how we react to natures awesome power with fear and anger.

The film is set in a post apocalyptic world, destroyed by a great war. The soil and air poisoned by man, a toxic jungle grows across the planet inhabited by deadly insects forcing humanity to fight over the ever dwindling resources and tiny patches of land where they can draw fresh water. On top of its overwhelming ecological message of living in peace with nature, it also wraps this up with a commentary on war and violence between people.

The heroine of the film (the self titled NausicaƤ the princess of the Valley of the Wind) deserves particular mention as she is one of the most inspiring female leads I have yet to encounter. She is at once explorer, leader, scientist and warrior. Not only does she achieve remarkable things but does so with complete and utter dedication to compassion. Her ability to make all of the dominant characters in the movie look foolish and weak by comparison shows us all that warriors do not always fight with swords. Indeed she grows and develops to exemplify the practices of non violence (Ashima) and universal love expressed in Eastern religions, yet remains a charming grounded individual fully connected to her people and the planet.

If there is one film that unities the ideas of human compassion and environmental compassion, to show they form one inseparable ideal; that a balanced life in harmony with nature is a peaceful life in harmony with man, then it is NausicaƤ.

  1. Ponyo

(Lovely deep sea fish)

My second Ghilbli film, this recent Japanese hand drawn adventure tells the tale of a young boy and his discovery of the run away juvenile sea spirit Ponyo.

I love this film primarily for it showing the awesome power and beauty of the marine world. Ancient extinct placoderms (armoured fish) lazily swimming along next to trilobites was a real treat for a marine biologist who was also fascinated by extinct animals (dinosaurs obviously included) as a child. The beauty and naturalness of the animation very literally made one of my fantasy’s a reality, to see these extinct animals brought to life.

Yet the main ecological theme is a relatively short section that shows the damage that humanity is causing to the sea. As Ponyo swims into the quaint Japanese harbour we see the effects of bottom trawling, the damage caused by plastic bags and cans thrown into the sea and the oily slick produced by our engines. This makes a bold statement, even from our perspective in what we would consider an idyllic little fishing village, there is dramatic damage being done to an environment we are not familiar with. Ponyo then builds on this theme by building an emotional connection with this environment, so that we come away thinking that it is something worth working for.

  1. WALL·E

(Hopefully not how we all end up!)

The 2008 Pixar masterpiece has received almost universal praise for the quality of its animation, story construction and adorable characterisation, yet for me the stand out elements of this film were the way it carefully criticized modern industrial and information society.

The plot focuses on the comic romance that develops between two robots, WALL·E the hard working junk collector who is stuck down on earth which is transformed into and indurtial wasteland and Eve a high-tech space bot sent down to search for signs of life. When they find a tiny plant, they are both transported back up to the orbiting spaceship containing the remants of humanity.

The key ecological themes in the film are humanities disconnection from the natural world. Indeed WALL·E is the most compassionate, connected and aware being in the entire film. He is shown to have grown to love, care and connect with his environment because of his work cleaning up the earth. The obese, chair bound humans who have no idea where their food comes from and rely on machines to perform even the most simple tasks are at the opposite end of the spectrum. All of their knowledge is second hand, downloaded from a wikipedia like interface and they have no reakl life experience.

The beauty of this film is that it is not anti technology, our hero is after all a piece of technology. Its that it shows how the application of some forms of technology lead to disconnection from ones environment and then afterwards from oneself. It is a philosophy very close to my heart, that man and machine can work together to build a better world; a connected, ecological and sustainable one in which all human beings (and sentient robots of course) can prosper.

  1. The Lion King

(The circle of life just starts playing in my head...)

We had to have at least one Disney film in here I guess, and the lion king is just one for the job. Multi award and heart winning, the lion king has stood the test of time. The tale of a young boy lion Simba who matures to reclaim his damaged kingdom from his power hungry uncle Scar, has both a powerful and compelling story and a whole bundle of charm to boot.

Ecology wise there are two major strengths. Firstly, the sheer scale and spectacle of the African savannah is shown in all its glory. One of our last true wildernesses and the last place on earth where we have both herds of wild grazing mammals and large numbers of mammalian top predators (we unsurprisingly killed off, ate and domesticated the rest of these large mammal populations), the Savannah ecosystem is rightfully worshipped by the animation in the Lion King. The opening circle of life sequence is a powerhouse that never fails to leave an emotional impact on me.

Secondly, we have the notion of ecological connectedness and sustainable use. The wise father figure Mufasa, spends a good deal of time schooling the young Simba on the fact that all parts of the Savannah are connected together. Mufasa intellectually and practically understands his role as a keystone predator, too many lions and the gazelles suffer, then the lions suffer and so does everything else in the system. The lion is king because he has the power to later the whole ecosystem. We see that when Scar runs the show, the entire system collapses and there is starvation, erosion, drought and death. This is a powerful message for us humans, who are after all the most important keystone predator on this earth.


  1. I thought we agreed Pom Poko needed to be in this list(large raccoon testicles aside!)

  2. I know, I know! but Steve rushed in to take me out drinking (and talking to a visting scientist...but mostly drinking!)

  3. I was never that keen on Pom Poko; I reckon Princess Mononoke has a pretty powerful eco-message, all delivered through the mouths of demon wolves. The best way to deliver an eco-message.

    Also, have you seen The Thin Red Line? A WW2 film set during the battles in the South Pacific, but says as much about our relationship with nature as it does about war (an amazingly idyllic opening showing Melanesian tribal life is the constant counterpoint to all the bombs and gunfire that follows).

  4. I do love happy feet too...but had to keep it to a top 5 (maybe another post later on for the extras)