“They’re not only racing across the world—they’re racing to save the world,” declares the trailer of the new movie Cars 2. The animated feature is the latest kids’ movie with an environmental twist: Alternative-fuel-advocating heroes will show down with big-oil villains as the movie hits theaters today. We rounded up the top ten kids’ movies aimed at spreading the word about saving the environment.
1) FernGully: The Last Rainforest — This 1992 animated film depicts a magical rainforest inhabited by fairies but threatened by destructive loggers. When the loggers cut down a tree and release the evil spirit Hexxus, Crysta, the fairy protagonist, and her friends (including lumberjack Zak, whom Crysta shrunk down to miniature size to save his life) must find a way to defeat the pollution-loving demon and save their home. The movie’s message is overtly conservationist, villainizing destructive humans and urging viewers to do what they can to preserve the wilderness areas still left on Earth.
2) WALL-E — This hit film from 2008 takes place 700 years in the future, when the Earth has been reduced to a deserted, trash-covered ghost town. Robot WALL-E seems to be the last sentient being on the planet, as all the humans have fled to gigantic space ships that hover in outer space. One day, one of those ships comes to Earth, bringing advanced robot EVE, with whom WALL-E falls in love. He follows her back to space, and his adventures there eventually convince the humans they must return to Earth. The state of the Earth in the movie urges viewers to take notice of how their actions are affecting the environment and warns of what might happen if they don’t.
3) Bambi — The classic animated film from 1942 tells the story of a young deer and his friends who live in a forest threatened by hunters. When Bambi is still a fawn, his mother is killed by one of those hunters, and he must grow up without her. Bambi and his friends get older and he falls in love with another deer, Faline. Everything is peachy until the next day, when the forest goes up in flames and Faline is attacked by hunting dogs. Bambi is able to save her, and the couple eventually escapes to an island in a lake, where they live (at least we expect) happily ever after. The scene where Bambi’s mom dies would make even the most hardened hunter think about setting down his gun.
4) Over the Hedge When the forest animals, the main characters in Over the Hedge (2006), wake up from hibernation, they realize that half of their forest has been destroyed and replaced by a suburban neighborhood hidden behind a giant hedge. The animals, especially raccoon RJ, who is paying off a debt to an angry black bear, try to survive by stealing food from the humans who live on the other side of the hedge. The plot revolves more around the interactions among the animals than an environmental message, but some pointed comments are unmistakably meaningful: “That is an SUV,” says RJ in the trailer. “It’s so big!” respond the animals. “How many humans fit in there?” RJ’s reply is priceless: “Usually…one.”
5) Hoot — Based on a Carl Hiaasen novel, this 2006 film portrays the adventure of three middle-school students who try to protect a rare breed of endangered owls. The main character, Roy, just moved to Florida from Montana, and quickly makes friends with Beatrice and her truant stepbrother, “Mullet Fingers.” The three set out to derail a greedy CEO in his construction of a pancake restaurant on the vacant lot where the rare owls live. Not exactly an award-wining movie, but definitely one that encourages kids to think about the relationship between humans, development and wildlife.
6) Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home — Whether this 1986 film can be considered a movie for kids is debatable, but its environmental undertones are clear. It’s the year 2286, and a strange probe is approaching Earth, sending out signals that Spock determines match the calls of the extinct humpback whale. The probe is wreaking havoc on Earth, so the crew of the USS Enterprise decides to go back in time to 1986, where they find two whales in a San Francisco aquarium. A curator there explains to the crew members why the whales are endangered. They take the whales back to the future with them and release them in the San Francisco Bay, where the giant mammals answer the probe’s signal and stop the destruction. Logical? Maybe not. But with an environmental message? Most definitely.
7) Free Willy — Another movie with whales and an environmental message, Free Willy was a hit in 1993. It features a young boy who befriends a recently captured orca whale in a local aquarium/amusement park. The boy, Jesse, and the whale, Willy, bond, but Willy is in danger because he doesn’t perform tricks well and therefore doesn’t earn much money for the park. The park owner and his cronies threaten to kill Willy, so Jesse decides to release the whale into the wild. There’s no mistaking the villains in this movie—the park owner, who exploits animals, and the whalers who capture Willy—or the message that wild animals are better off left alone.
Disneynature’s Oceans — Though a bit more subtle than some of the other films on this list, Oceans still makes an impact. A documentary released on Earth Day in 2010, the film explores the underwater world that covers three-quarters of our planet. While it spends much of its time depicting the weird, wonderful and beautiful life forms that the oceans have to offer, the documentary doesn’t miss its chance to show the negative effects human actions can have on wildlife and urge viewers to respect nature.
9) Avatar – Again, it’s debatable whether this is a kids’ movie, but it’s clearly a film with environmental themes. A paraplegic soldier travels to the planet of Pandora, where he, in the form of his avatar, integrates with the indigenous Na’vi people. He is supposed to help conquer the foreign land, but soon finds himself siding with the Na’vi. There are many themes in this 2009 film, but among them are a respect for the environment (demonstrated by the graceful Na’vi), our ultimate reliance on nature and the destructive nature of humans and how it affects the planet.
10) Happy Feet — The main message of this 2006 Disney movie is that it’s okay to be different, but environmental themes work their way in as well. The film focuses on a young penguin, Mumble, with a talent for tap dancing—something none of the other penguins can do. It follows his adventures and quest for acceptance throughout the plot, but the environmental aspect shows up when Mumble is blamed for the scarcity of fish in the ocean, a nod to overfishing. In addition, one of Mumble’s friends wears a set of plastic six-pack rings around his neck like jewelry, only to later be choked by the piece of trash. Happy Feet is an example of the environment showing up in movies that are not directly about the environment.
Giving films a green theme is clearly a trend in cinema lately. What other environment-focused kids’ movies did we miss?