04 February 2017

Adapting Images of Fathers in Animated Films

Some animated film titles such as Lion King (1994), Chicken Little (2005), and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) remind us of a sincere father–son relationship. Fatherhood has become a major theme adopted in mainstream American cinemas, and father–son relationship portrayal is one of them. Pixar, as a well-recognized animated films producer, has also adopted this recurring theme of father and son narrative in two of its films: Finding Nemo (2003) and Ratatouille (2007). The fathers in these films, especially in Finding Nemo, have attracted audiences, in which they are acknowledged as an example of a good father. Hence, there are some questions to be asked: what exactly is a good father? And what makes these fathers a good father? This essay will discuss the characteristics of a good father, and how Pixar represent them through father characters in its films.

There is no right or wrong answer to a question about what a good father is. The meaning or the image of a good father varies from one individual to another. It depends on the social perception of how a father should behave in a family, which is shaped by a place, time, and the culture an individual lives in. The media such as books, magazine articles, television programs, and films play a role in maintaining this social perception. Therefore, it is crucial to look at how fathers are represented in the media in order to identify the image of a good father in a society.

American society at the beginning of the twenty-first century believes that a good father is a father who is emotionally articulate, caring, and involved in raising his children. There are many self-help books, magazine articles, and comic strips that discuss how important it is for a father to be a nurturing parent. Through this image, fathers are encouraged not only to provide financial and other material resources but also to spend their time with their children, engaged in some activities together to build a meaningful relationship between him and his family.

As one of the widely consumed types of media, American films, including its animated films, have been maintaining the current image of a good father. Not only that mainstream American cinemas often feature fatherhood as their theme but they also have represented involved, caring, and loving fathers. In animated films, this image gradually replaces the stereotypical image of a father as authoritative, stern, or physically and emotionally distant from his children. Particularly in the portrayal of father–son relationship, fathers in animated films are no longer demanding and have less dominance in their relationship with their sons; it is the fathers who change their behaviors and adapt towards their sons’ needs to develop. In other words, recent animated films contribute to building the image of a good father in the early twenty-first century. The following section will further explain the representation of fathers in two well-known Pixar films, Finding Nemo (2003) and Ratatouille (2007), and introducing two major points that reinforce the image of a good father within the father characters.

The type of father–son relationship depicted in Finding Nemo and Ratatouille is quite similar. At the beginning of the narratives, the fathers seem to depict some stereotypical characteristics of a father, such as demanding their sons’ obedience and expecting their sons to do something against their sons’ will. The short clip above, taken from Finding Nemo, shows that Marlin, the father, is overprotective towards his only son, Nemo. Unfortunately, Marlin’s overprotectiveness limits Nemo to explore his curiosity. Marlin is too afraid to let Nemo swim with no supervision due to Nemo’s small right fin. However, Nemo finds his fin is not a hindrance to swim and experience new things.

Similarly, Ratatouille also presents a father who is demanding and restraining his son to pursue his dream as a chef. Django, the father, wants Remy, his son, to do what they are supposed to do as a rat. It means that Remy is not allowed to be close or get along with humans, let alone becoming a chef. In the Ratatouille teaser trailer, shown below, Django shouts at Remy not to be picky with foods. However, Remy believes that to be a chef, he has to be careful and choose the foods that he wants to eat. For Remy, Django’s demand is one of his major obstacles.

Even though it might appear that the films portray the image of stereotypical fathers, the stories do not end right there. As the narratives progress, the fathers gradually show their efforts to become a good father. They adapt to their sons by changing their behavior in order to support their sons’ development. Marlin’s adaptation towards Nemo in Finding Nemo marks Marlin as a good father. Marlin realizes that he has to change to support Nemo’s development. The following video clip refers to Marlin’s adjustment; it takes place when Nemo wants to save their friend, Dory who gets caught on a fishnet. However, Marlin does not let Nemo go swim by himself. Marlin is afraid to lose Nemo again but Nemo insists on swimming and helping Dory. After hearing Nemo’s plead and devastation, Marlin decides to trust Nemo and learns that everything is worth trying. Marlin’s trust enables Nemo to be more confident and finally, save the day.

Similar to Marlin, in Ratatouille, Django is the one who jumps into Remy’s life to support his son more, and this implies the value of a good father within Django. Django becomes aware that he needs to change his behavior to help Remy accomplish his goal. The short clip below shows Django’s adaptation in response to Remy’s needs, resulting in a stronger father–son relationship between them. After seeing Remy almost failing to achieve his dream, Django offers Remy some help from him and the whole clan, although they cannot cook like Remy. Django becomes more open and learns to see the world from a different perspective through Remy’s journey becoming a chef. Django’s adaptation to Remy’s needs allows Remy to be a chef.

On top of father’s adjustment, to become a good father, fathers have to be emotionally articulate. Both films portray fathers who can communicate their feelings towards their sons. In Finding Nemo, although in the earlier scenes Marlin appears to express more of his anxiety towards Nemo, as the narrative progress, Marlin proves that he can express his love through trust and understanding. Seeing Nemo’s effort to save Dory, Marlin also realizes the importance of expressing their emotions towards each other, thus maintaining a meaningful father–son relationship.

Likewise, in Ratatouille, despite all arguments that Django and Remy have, Django can express his feelings and affection easily towards Remy. Django is glad to have his son back to the clan, even though only for a short time, and tells Remy that the important thing is to have him home. He seems to be worried and disappointed at Remy when his son tells him that he wants to leave the clan. However, Django never fails to praise Remy whenever Remy does something helpful for the clan and later in the film, for having the courage not to give up in achieving his dream. Both Marlin and Django in the films have demonstrated that although at the beginning they seem to be authoritative, they are willing to change their parenting conduct in order to support their son, and to communicate their feelings.

Through the emphasis of father’s change and nurturance, Pixar films have represented its fathers in accordance with the current image of a good father in the early twenty-first century. Fathers are depicted as someone who can adapt their behavior in response to their sons’ needs as well as being emotionally articulate to express their feelings towards their sons. Pixar has effectively introduced this image of a good father through the narratives and character development. The representation implied in the narratives shows that Pixar films serve beyond mere forms of entertainment. The films, in some ways, support a particular view of a good father, which may or may not give significant effect to their audiences. At last, as one of the most influential media, Pixar films have maintained the social perception about a good father: He has to be ready to change for his children and to be affectionate.

[This essay is by Nurina Sevrina and is based on her undergraduate thesis in Culture, Society and Media at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, which was awarded outstanding thesis for the class of 2016.]

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