What does a cute space robot know about climate change? A lot, actually.

From The Land Before Time to Frozen 2, kids’ movies have been way ahead of the curve when it comes to confronting environmental problems.

Maxine McCrann
An Inconvenient Truth

One afternoon last summer, as the worst wildfires in Oregon’s history raged outside, my toddler and I sat down to watch Wall-E, the 2008 animated film about the last robot left on Earth, who is trying to clean all the garbage off the planet so humans can return home.

We don’t normally watch TV in the afternoons, but this was an act of desperation. We hadn’t been able to go outside for over four days. At the time, the air quality in Portland was the worst in the world. I had sealed our windows with duct tape, but the entire house still reeked of smoke. The sky was orange and dim; ash rained down like snowflakes. With that scene outside, we sat in the house spellbound, watching a cheerful robot dance to show tunes while wearing a garbage can lid as a hat and battling an animated apocalypse on the screen.

Wall-E wasn’t the only film we watched during that endless week. We also watched Ice Age: The Meltdown, where a group of prehistoric animals try to escape massive flooding due to global warming. We sang our way through Rio, a film about the last two blue macaws attempting to save their species from extinction, and Rio 2, where the macaws fight against logging in the Amazon. We watched Dinosaur, about a herd of dinosaurs hunting for food and water after a meteor destroys their ecosystem. After about the eighth movie, I realized that what we were actually watching was one long, animated exploration of climate change. Even while global warming has been ignored and mishandled by much of Hollywood for decades, the destruction of our planet and decimation of our natural resources has been on our children’s TV screens the whole time.

If you’re going to talk about climate change in children’s films, the first major entry into the genre was The Land Before Time, released in 1988. An epic journey following a herd of dinosaurs searching for “a land of green, of leaves, of life,” The Land Before Time is considered one of the greatest animated films ever made. It is also one of the first clear images of climate change in a children’s film (albeit not human-caused climate change). As Roger Ebert described it, “The climate has changed. And so these peaceful vegetarians head west, seeking a fabled green valley where they hope to find food ... all but the last scenes take place in a blasted heath of red skies. Parched land. Withered trees. Barren wastes and thorn thickets.”

“Kids are smarter than most people think.”

Stu Krieger, the scriptwriter behind The Land Before Time, says that while the movie wasn’t a direct reaction to climate change, it did intentionally address the need to preserve the planet’s resources. “The dinosaurs' desire to make their way to a greener, more fertile place was a conscious theme from the start,” Krieger explains. Perhaps the most impactful choice that Krieger made was to “talk up” to kids about tough subjects. “Kids are smarter than most people think,” he says.

While The Land Before Time was paving the way for ugly realities on the big screen, an Australian filmmaker couple named Wayne and Diana Young was dreaming of making a movie that would tackle head-on the environmental degradation they were seeing all around them. “Our generation was not educated [about climate change] at all,” Wayne Young says. “We couldn’t call it an environmental film. We called it a fairy tale.”

It’s true that very few people were talking about climate change back then, but that’s not because they didn’t know about it. Even as Wayne and Diana were creating a fairy tale that would make every child want to fight for the natural world, Exxon scientists were researching climate change. “We made a prediction in 1980 of what the atmospheric warming would be from fossil fuel burning in 2020,” Dr. Martin Hoffert, one of the leading researchers consulting with Exxon, told me in June. “We predicted that it would be about 1 degree Celsius. And it is about 1 degree Celsius.”

Instead of using that information to start looking into alternative energy sources, Exxon shut down its research projects and started funding climate deniers instead. In 1985, British scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica and linked it to chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which prompted a multinational agreement to cut down on the harmful chemicals and put pressure on companies like Exxon to abide. Then, the particularly scorching summer of 1988 led to a devastating drought that made climate change front-page news, prompting a high-level Exxon employee to develop the “Exxon Position” — which, per the Los Angeles Times, was to sow doubt about climate science in order to avoid more regulation. In 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil off the coast of Alaska, killing hundreds of thousands of birds, otters, seals, whales, and bald eagles. Climate change and environmental devastation were certainly happening — they just weren’t part of the cultural conversation.

The Youngs wanted to change that. Enter 1992’s FernGully, a story about a group of fairies and magical beings who live in a gorgeous, untouched rainforest, fighting against both humans who want to log their home and an evil creature named Hexus who takes the form of a dripping mountain of Valdez-like black sludge. “Originally he was named Exxon,” Young tells Mic. “Eventually Fox said, ‘You’re going to have to change that character’s name because Exxon is going to sue us and we’re going to sue you.’”

It’s hard to overstate the impact FernGully had on millennials. Young says he regularly hears from fans — now fully grown — who say that FernGully changed their lives, leading them into careers as marine biologists or scientists or environmentalists. In a 2018 interview, environment journalist Emily Guerin spoke about the impact FernGully’s message had on her as a child: “Here's this beautiful lush landscape, and humans are messing it up.”

Even if other films haven’t been quite as direct, climate change has steadily crept its way into children’s movies. The Japanese animated film Spirited Away (2002) explores human disregard for nature and the mismanagement of the planet’s resources. Happy Feet (2006) addresses overfishing and pollution through dancing penguins, while Ice Age (2002, plus sequels in 2006, 2009, 2012, and 2016) follows a group of animals dealing with global warming. Police Patrol (2009) is about a car whose town is suffering from a drought and warming temperatures. The Lorax (2012) is an entire movie about a girl who wishes she could “see a real living tree” for the first time. Cars 2 (2011) is about Big Oil plotting to take over the world. Wall-E (2008), as we know, takes on consumerism and consumption. In recent years, the message is more blatant: 2016’s Moana is a thinly veiled fable of greed and consumerism, while Frozen 2, released in 2019, is so clearly about climate change that a college professor uses it to teach his students.

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And it’s not just the quantity of children’s films dealing with this theme. It’s the way they do it. While the few Hollywood films that address climate change — who can forget Waterworld and Sharknado? — use it merely as a plot device, or focus on the world being saved through violence by some hypermasculine hero, these children’s films focus on teamwork, connecting with nature, and respecting life-sustaining resources. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that the young people who grew up with these movies are now leading the fight for climate justice.

Part of what makes children’s films the ideal playground to explore our resource crisis is the power of animation. Wall-E can give us a vivid image of what a desolate, trash-covered Earth will look like. Rio can introduce us to the Amazon rainforest and let us for a moment inhabit the overwhelming loneliness of being the last of your species, a situation facing 25% of animals and plants between now and 2050.

And animals themselves are likely another reason that environmental degradation is so frequently shown in children's films. Kids love animals, and if there is any go-to plot device that concerns animals, it’s climate and extinction. In this way, perhaps the films our children watch will become a kind of animated tomb, a way to preserve the animal species that are rapidly disappearing from the face of the earth. When the blue macaw, the bird featured in Rio, went extinct only seven years after Rio was released, one article remarked that “children for generations to come will still be able to derive joy from their unique beauty — albeit in animated form.”

Of course, not everybody thinks bringing climate change into children’s films is a good thing. Glenn Beck, for example, called Happy Feet "propaganda," saying it was an "animated version of An Inconvenient Truth." A 2011 Fox News article argued that “films are now too focused on fueling young, impressionable minds with political arguments.” But after watching Where the Wild Things Are, the movie critic A.O. Scott made this argument: “Bright colors, easy lessons, and thrilling rides that end safely and predictably on terra firma have their place. But so, surely, do representations of the grimmer, thornier thickets of experience. That’s what art is, and surely our children deserve some of that too. Which includes movies that elicit displeasure and argument along with rapture.”

Perhaps the real danger isn’t that these films show the grimmer, thornier thickets of climate change, but that they show all that, and then deliver a happy ending. (At the end of Wall-E, humans and robots return to Earth, with new plants growing out of the wasteland.) Meanwhile, our offscreen happy ending is officially on the cutting room floor. When Miyazaki, the creator of Spirited Away, made his 2019 film Weathering With You, about a girl who can control the weather, he supposedly refused to write a happy ending, explaining that he couldn’t bring himself “to have a hero save the world, when the real world is already past saving.”

But when I spoke with Wayne Young, the filmmaker behind FernGully, he said that the happy ending isn’t a way of avoiding the realities of climate change, but a more subtle message about the potential of our species. “​​We might as well give children trust in the nature of the human spirit,” Young says. Besides, he adds, if the future is going to happen, it belongs to the children, so we should encourage them to imagine a more beautiful, sustainable world than the one we’ve left them. “Leave the doors and the windows open for the child to become self-aware and work out where they fit in,” he says. “Because they’re way smarter than we are.”