Father Knows Best? How animated movies illustrate dads

By Anna Mussmann

God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18). He gave Adam and Eve to each other. He made family the foundational building block of human society. Marriage and family are good. God created us to thrive in and through the family. Furthermore, our Lord uses the imagery of human marriage and human fatherhood to teach us to understand His relationship with us.

This is why the devil uses attacks on the family, and on fatherhood in particular. They give our adversary an opportunity to create all kinds of suffering. They help him cloud our ability to grasp key aspects of Christian faith. A warped understanding of family and fatherhood also warps our understanding of God’s role as an authority figure in our lives. We struggle to believe our Creator could love us enough to die for us, or that He could have the patience to forgive our sins day after day and week after week.

Perversions of fatherhood come in many forms. The ancient Greeks pictured Zeus, the king and father of the gods, as a promiscuous jerk. The Taliban enforce a model of fatherhood in which men dominate women. In contemporary America, we have our own brand of trouble.

We have a big, father-shaped hole. A Pew Research study in 2019 observed that almost one-fourth of children in the United States live in homes headed by a single parent, usually a mother. The correlation between fatherlessness and a slew of poor outcomes is well documented. Children without involved dads are at a significantly increased risk of poverty, academic failure, incarceration, obesity, teen pregnancy and teen suicide. Plenty of other children do live in intact homes, but this has not stopped our culture from building up significant bitterness toward fathers.

Human males have always been sinners, but today we struggle to define the concept of a good father. How many boys today are taught to think of faithful fatherhood as an inspiring ideal? Surely it is no accident that our “fatherhood problem” correlates with increasing rejection of the Christian God, who identifies Himself as our Father.

One way to address a poor understanding of fathers is through stories. The right stories reflect truth in a way that speaks to our imagination. They can show us alternative ways to live. They can nurture hope. Unfortunately, the wrong stories can also destroy our vision and teach us to despise what is good. Since the mid-20th century, we have watched quite a few of the wrong stories.

Have you noticed the consistent way children’s entertainment portrays parents — especially fathers — as fools? In Pixar’s “Brave,” the table manners and general cluelessness of King Fergus are played for laughs right up until the moment where he mistakenly tries to kill his wife. In Disney’s “Aladdin,” the blustering Sultan has no idea what his daughter really wants. In “Peter Pan,” George Darling punishes the family dog when the children love her more than him. In DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon,” dad Stoick is similarly comic, loud and out of touch.

“It’s just a story,” we might say. “Kids like that kind of humor!” Yet, movie themes and stereotypes matter. Stories provide us with narratives that guide us in interpreting our lives and the actions of others. They shape our sense of what is normal. They form our imagination and our aspirations by showing us what to admire, what to hate and what to love. The world knows this. Imagine, for example, the outcry if Disney, Pixar or DreamWorks portrayed racial minorities like they do fathers.

What do animation studios have against dads? In answer, look at another of their common themes. Almost always, these cartoon fathers — even the charming, loving ones with backstories that are psychologically relatable to adult members of the audience — are wrong.

These dads try to stop the protagonist. The redemption of these fathers comes only from giving up old beliefs and learning new ones from their children. In “Moana,” Chief Tui tries to stop his daughter from going to sea. In “Finding Nemo,” Marlin will not let his son swim more than a few feet away. In “The Little Mermaid,” Triton tells Ariel to stay away from humans. In “Frozen,” Queen Iduna and King Agnarr hide Elsa’s powers from even her sister. In “Ratatouille,” Remy’s dad insists that rats neither cook nor fraternize with humans. In short, each story requires these children to reject their father’s advice.

It is not that all of these stories are necessarily bad, nor that every fictional father should be all knowing. The problem is the relentless pattern. God tells fathers to “bring [your children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). In contrast, these movies tell children not to listen. These storytellers reject the model of family under the headship of a father. Instead, they teach that personal fulfillment comes from breaking away from your family’s values, in particular, your father’s values.

Recognizing this, what should Lutheran parents do?

We should help our children pay attention to the movies they watch. Just as we point out the manipulative tactics of advertisers who want our kids’ money, we should also comment on the moral messaging in cartoons. Do not be preachy, but be honest. I still remember my own father’s snort of annoyance over the father-bashing in Stan and Jan Berenstain’s the Berenstain Bears books.

We should be purposeful in giving our children excellent, truthful stories. Find books and movies that offer healthy models of how a family should function. Look for well-crafted tales that form viewers and readers to admire what is good and hate what is evil. Include some old books. The institution of the family is under attack. Our children need to see the way families have been portrayed in other eras so that they can recognize aberrations in our own.

Most of all, though, we should tell our children God’s story. Read the Bible with them. Teach the commandments. Sing hymns. Ask their forgiveness when you sin, and forgive them over and over. Pray with them, and pray for them. God gave Adam and Eve to each other, and He gives us to our children. What we are doing is good even when the world cannot see that.

This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of The Lutheran Witness.

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7 thoughts on “Father Knows Best? How animated movies illustrate dads”

  1. This seems like a bit of a reach to me. We understand fatherhood through God’s example, not the other way around, which would be an imperfect representation. Certainly, many movies involve disagreements between parent and child, but conflict is a core driver of storytelling and parent/child disagreements are likely common in kids media because, well, it’s relatable. Additionally, in the end of most of these films, the child doesn’t abandon their family or stop respecting their parents or traditions. What does happen is that they communicate more openly with each other and solve their problems together, despite their differences. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see more films where the parents are positive figures throughout. But I’m concerned that hypervigilance toward films with parent/child conflict will 1) rob children of tools to navigate disagreements (in youth and adulthood) without feeling they have to leave their entire faith and family behind, and 2) deprive parents of media that reassures them that even in their sinful nature, they can still raise good kids (by God’s grace) if they acknowledge their human imperfections and seek to do better. If anything, I think this will lead to a healthier faith and a stronger family bond.

    1. I think the article made a valid point but I also think Leah makes a good point. I think we should be aware and proactive about what our kids watch. I have griped to my own wife about some of those exact movies for those exact reasons. I also think we should not fall into the trap of complaining or griping (like I did) it’s not a good look and can lead to bitterness. Let’s not simply accept what our culture tells us, but let’s also be willing to listen and learn both from our kids and perhaps even from the criticism of others. (And be willing to fight the battle against our kids and our laziness to put limits on screen time!)

  2. Thanks , I hate to hear it’s just in fun, and I am seen like ” an Old Futty Dutty.”Being 90 years old they think everything about my generation is out-dated, even the Bible and Principles sometimes., How very sad what today’s world is teaching to our young
    . It’s up to the home and parents to keep the children’s minds protected .

  3. Mostly what I do, as a dad, especially watching animated movies, ESPECIALLY when those animated movies make assertions about matters spiritual or afterlife-oriented, is to bring up my dadly “questions” about what’s going on.
    It has become a little bit of a joke in my family, and my kids roll their eyes a bit and tell me to “just watch it without talking” but we sort of l laugh and make light of it… but I ask them questions like “What are they saying about ‘look inside yourself for the truth?'” or “How does this afterlife work, when you’re forgotten and your soul turns to glitter? Is that good? Who is running all this?”

    In the same way that I have tried to inculcate a spirit of criticism toward pharmaceutical ads, I am also, through a bit of a dad-joke veil, attempting to inculcate my children to look critically at the message or alternate reality being proffered by entertainment. The nice thing is that movies are so overt about it that they’ve started to ask me in advance what I think about it. When the time comes and a teachable moment pops up, and we sort of laugh and I say “Oh yeah this is where I tell you about Jesus” but I think it’s working.

    1. Keep up the good work. We need to be actively teaching our children to be critical of what they’re seeing in the world. It’s not a “Christian” culture by any means. Much of what passes for popular thought is a rejection of what we hold dear as the people of God. I’m delighted to see you faithfully teaching and encouraging your children. Bravo.

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