Hit toons take learning to a new level

By Edward Helmore

After Frozen, Hollywood has high hopes for more educational animated flicks

Mr Peabody leads Sherman through history in a DreamWorks animation. Photo / AP
Mr Peabody leads Sherman through history in a DreamWorks animation. Photo / AP

Cartoons with a conscience and a mission to educate have become the route to success in Hollywood this spring, after a winter devoted to greed and crime in films such as Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle.

Last week, Mr Peabody & Sherman - a DreamWorks animation about a dog that adopts a child and travels through history encountering Marie Antoinette, Leonardo da Vinci and the Trojan horse - beat all-comers to top the US box office.

The movie opens in New Zealand this week.

Next month, 20th Century Fox's Rio 2, in which a loveable blue parrot and his friends battle extinction, is being rolled out in conjunction with a campaign by the US Forest Service to encourage children to reconnect with nature.

Later this year Rihanna will be the voice of a character from DreamWorks' 3D computer-animated buddy comedy Home, based on the book The True Meaning of Smekday.

The movie tells the story of an invasion of aliens and the relocation of humans to reservation land in Arizona. The comparison between Native Americans and the arrival of white settlers is more than just implied - a Navajo named Frank is depicted as the sole voice of reason.

But the insertion of environmental and multicultural messaging into animated films has less to do with Hollywood preaching than good business practice.

The audience for animated film is far broader than action adventure, and since James Cameron's eco-laden Avatar (still the highest grossing film of all time) and the superb Pixar hit Wall-E that addressed consumerism and environmental issues, film-makers have been comfortable addressing social issues they might shun in other genres.

"It's not necessarily new," says Deadline Hollywood's Dominic Patten, pointing to the success of last year's Epic, from Fox, and DreamWorks' The Croods, both of which had strong environmental themes.

"This has been true of animated films for many, many years," says Patten. "They're not for kids any more - parents and children only make up 50 per cent of the box office. In fact, The Simpsons introduced the idea of social and satirical complexity years ago, and that's part of what we're now seeing in film."

Animated films, he says, also tend to make boatloads of money. Frozen not only made US$1 billion but its soundtrack sat at No1 for weeks. Last week, Disney chief executive Bob Iger confirmed that Frozen would surpass the US$1.06 billion box office taking of Toy Story 3.

Thirdly, he says animated films are the only globalised cinematic genre and have a vast reach across many markets. But it's not about getting on a soapbox.

"It's about talking about issues we know are important to people out there, as well as issues that are part of our world. If we find a way to tell more universally themed stories, film-makers can connect with audiences in stronger ways."

The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, arguably the father of the genre, now sponsors a chair at UCLA's School of Theatre, Film and Television that gives out awards and financing to animators who highlight social responsibility.

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