You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids' Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?

Encouraging kids is fine, but films like Planes and Turbo take their messages to an extreme. Parents should turn to 1969's A Boy Named Charlie Brown for a reality check.

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Disney; Dreamworks; Cinema Center Films

For all the chatter about the formulaic sameness of Hollywood movies, no genre in recent years has been more thematically rigid than the computer-animated children's movie. These films have been infected with what might be called the magic-feather syndrome. As with the titular character in Walt Disney's 1943 animated feature Dumbo, these movies revolve around anthropomorphized outcasts who must overcome the restrictions of their societies or even species to realize their impossible dreams. Almost uniformly, the protagonists' primary liability, such as Dumbo's giant ears, eventually turns into their greatest strength.

But first the characters must relinquish the crutch of the magic feather--or, more generally, surmount their biggest fears--and believe that their greatness comes from within.

Examples from the past decade abound: a fat panda hopes to become a Kung Fu master (Kung Fu Panda); a sewer-dwelling rat dreams of becoming a French chef (Ratatouille); an 8-bit villain yearns to be a video-game hero (Wreck-It Ralph); an unscary monster pursues a career as a top-notch scarer (Monsters University). In the past month alone, two films with identical, paint-by-numbers plots--Turbo and Planes--have been released by separate studios, underlining the extent to which the magic-feather syndrome has infiltrated children's entertainment.

In DreamWorks' Turbo, the eponymous protagonist, a common garden snail, toils in a tomato patch during the day and dreams of racing glory at night. His older brother Chet, a safety supervisor in the snail colony, has little patience for his sibling's fantasies. "The sooner you accept the miserableness of your existence, the happier you'll be," Chet advises. "Dreamers eventually have to wake up."

Shortly thereafter, Turbo accidentally ingests large quantities of nitrous oxide and somehow gains exceptional racing capabilities. Through complicated plot machinations that involve a taco stand in Van Nuys, a quintet of sassy racing snails, and an arrogant French-Canadian racecar driver, Turbo qualifies for the Indianapolis 500. After a rocky start, Turbo surges to the lead in the last lap only to suffer a terrible crash that obstructs the other drivers and neutralizes Turbo's racing powers. Mere feet from the finish line, Turbo withdraws into his shell, uncertain that he has the inner strength to succeed. Now fully invested in his brother's quest, Chet yells at him: "It is in you! It's always been in you! ... My little brother never gives up. That's the best thing about you." Newly inspired, Turbo inches across the finish line, fulfilling his self-actualizing journey and proving that one needn't be human nor drive a car to win the country's most prestigious auto race.

Disney's Planes almost perfectly mirrors the plot and pacing of Turbo. In this feature, Dusty Crophopper, an unsatisfied crop-duster, yearns to break free from his workaday existence and compete in the famed Wings Around the Globe race. His skeptical friend Dottie tries to convince Dusty that "you are not built to race; you are built to dust crops." But Dusty remains determined to achieve his far-fetched goal, arguing that "I'm just trying to prove maybe, just maybe, I can do more than I was built for."

After finishing last in the race's first two legs, Dusty briefly takes over the lead before crashing into the Pacific Ocean during a violent storm. Damaged and discouraged, Dusty nearly drops out before the race's concluding leg. But Dottie restores his faith by reversing her initial doubts: "You're not a crop-duster. You're a racer, and now the whole world knows it." Rejuvenated, Dusty overcomes his doubts--not to mention his oft-stated fear of heights--and triumphs in the race's final seconds. Hammering home the movie's already unambiguous message, a doting fan at the finish line tells Dusty that he's "an inspiration for all of us who want to do more than we were built for."

It's probably no coincidence that the supremacy of the magic-feather syndrome in children's movies overlaps with the so-called "cult of self-esteem." The restless protagonists of these films never have to wake up to the reality that crop-dusters simply can't fly faster than sleek racing aircraft. Instead, it's the naysaying authority figures who need to be enlightened about the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community. As Jean Twenge, the controversial cultural critic of America's supposed narcissism epidemic, argues in her bestselling book Generation Me, younger generations "simply take it for granted that we should all feel good about ourselves, we are all special, and we all deserve to follow our dreams."

Following one's dreams necessarily entails the pursuit of the extraordinary in these films. The protagonists sneer at the mundane, repetitive work performed by their unimaginative peers. Dusty abhors the smell of fertilizer and whines to his flying coach that he's "been flying day after day over these same fields for years." Similarly, Turbo performs his duties in the garden poorly, and his insubordination eventually gets him and Chet fired. Their attitudes are all part of an ethos that privileges self-fulfillment over the communal good.

In addition to disparaging routine labor, these films discount the hard work that enables individuals to reach the top of their professions. Turbo and Dusty don't need to hone their craft for years in minor-league circuits like their racing peers presumably did. It's enough for them simply to show up with no experience at the world's most competitive races, dig deep within themselves, and out-believe their opponents. They are, in many ways, the perfect role models for a generation weaned on instant gratification.

The magic-feather syndrome has so thoroughly penetrated animated features that it's difficult to imagine a film that doesn't incorporate at least some of its tropes. Perhaps, you might be tempted to argue, kids movies have to be this way. But that's easily debunked--just look at Pixar's roster, which features a number of magic-feather narratives but also includes stories largely about family, friendship, and growing older.

Perhaps the best counterpoint--and the best example of just how much things have changed--can be found in Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts. In the comic strip, Schulz ridiculed the notion that individuals are likely to succeed merely because they believe in themselves. Every year Charlie Brown convinces himself that he is finally going to kick Lucy's football, and each time she snatches it away at the last second. In a 1968 interview with Psychology Today, Schulz implied that his characters pick on Charlie Brown because he is too much of a dreamer: "I think they are justified sometimes in their treatment of him. Charlie Brown is too vulnerable. He is full of hope and misdirected faith." Failure, unrequited love, and self-doubt are the norms in Peanuts, and nowhere is this better represented than in Schulz's first feature-length film, A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

Released in 1969, A Boy Named Charlie Brown turns the clichés of the magic-feather syndrome inside-out. It opens with Charlie Brown suffering through a string of failures: His kite crashes to the ground, his baseball team loses its 99th consecutive game, and even his toy sailboat sinks to the bottom of the bathtub. "I just can't seem to do anything right," he laments to himself. On his way to school, Lucy, Violet, and Patty taunt him with a heartless song: "You never do anything right / You never put anything in its place / No wonder everyone calls you / Failure-face." Sensing Charlie Brown's despair, Linus, his lone confidant, advises him that he's "going to have to win at something--something that will restore your lost self-confidence."

Determined to prove himself, Charlie Brown enters the school spelling bee and emerges victorious. By winning he becomes the area representative for the National Elimination Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. Before his departure he confides to Linus, "There's a good chance that instead of being a hero I'll make a bigger fool of myself than ever." Somewhat unhelpfully, Linus responds, "Don't be discouraged, Charlie Brown. You have nothing to lose. You'll either be a hero or a goat."

Up to this point, A Boy Named Charlie Brown has largely followed a familiar pattern: The protagonist defies his doubters, improbably qualifies for a major competition, and now needs only to channel his inner strength to triumph. It wouldn't be a stretch to assume that Lucy will soon disavow her initial skepticism and tell Charlie Brown at a crucial point in the competition that he's always had what it takes to win.

But that's not what happens. Instead, Charlie Brown survives to the final round (his words include unconfident, disastrous, and incompetent), and then carelessly misspells the word "beagle" while his dog Snoopy points at himself from the front row. Afterward, Charlie Brown, Linus, and Snoopy depart the theater in silence. When they're dropped off at the bus station that night, the streets are empty. "I guess nobody realized that we were returning," Linus remarks. The movie then spends an excruciating amount of time on Charlie Brown wordlessly unpacking, changing into his pajamas, and slipping beneath the covers, his eyes glazed with utter defeat.

When Charlie Brown doesn't show up for school that next day, Linus stops by his house. Still in bed with the shades pulled down, Charlie Brown tells Linus that he's never going to attempt anything again. Rather than trying again to build up Charlie Brown's self-esteem, Linus waxes philosophical: "Well, I can understand how you feel. You worked hard studying for the spelling bee, and I suppose you feel you let everyone down and you made a fool out of yourself and everything. But did you notice something, Charlie Brown?...The world didn't come to an end."

After mulling over this comment, Charlie Brown gets out of bed and ventures outside. None of his companions pay much attention to him as he strolls by. In the distance, he spots Lucy playing with a football. Just when it seems that Charlie Brown might be able to redeem himself with a small punt, Lucy pulls the football away from him, and the movie concludes with Charlie Brown flat on his back, grimacing at the camera.

A Boy Named Charlie Brown might come across now as harsh and unforgiving--especially to audiences that aren't familiar with the comic strip's cruel undercurrents--but its lessons are more enduring than those from movies where characters fulfill their impossible dreams. Charlie Brown learns through Linus's tough-love speech that failure, no matter how painful, is not permanent, and that the best means of withstanding it is simply to show up the next day to school with the fortitude to try again. Losing also forces Charlie Brown to come to terms with his own limitations. He can't rely on a miraculous victory to rescue him from his tormented childhood. He followed his dream, it didn't pan out, and he ends up more or less where he started, only a little more experienced and presumably with a little more respect from his peers. They may no longer be able to refer to him as "failure-face," but Lucy still yanks away the football when he becomes too hopeful. It's incremental, rather than life-altering, progress.

Contemporary animated films would never emulate the tough life lessons of A Boy Named Charlie Brown, but they'd do well to reintroduce the twin notions of failure and humility. In a movie like Planes, it should be good enough for a modest crop-duster just to qualify for the Wings Around the Globe race. After all, the mere fact that Dusty is participating in this televised competition more than justifies his lofty aspirations. Besides, having Dusty win on his first outing gives young audiences the false impression that the road to self-actualization isn't arduous and littered with speed bumps. His defeat wouldn't need to be as crushing as Charlie Brown's, but it might be humbling for Dusty to lose to a decorated, equally determined opponent and learn that life still goes on, even without a wholly happy ending.

It took nearly 43 years before Schulz allowed Charlie Brown to slug a game-winning homerun, which is a long time for a cartoon character to hold tight to his dreams. There should be time enough for a more experienced Dusty to realize his ambitions in subsequent films. After all, the only thing more common than the magic-feather syndrome in contemporary animated features is the inevitability of a sequel.