Why Do We Cry at Animated Features? – Part 1

27 Jan 2017

Animations are known to be aesthetically beautiful, but what usually makes a feature stand the test of time is an emotional story. In this blog post, we outline those magical moments that make us reach for the tissue box.

The Lion King – Mufasa’s Death


Mufasa’s death is easily the most powerful moment in Classic Disney history. A seminal experience for children of the 80’s and 90’s that made us feel a range of raw emotions. But why does it work so well? Often we can watch a movie and cry, but we don’t take the time to rationalise why it made us feel that way. We believe that this devastating loss serves the backbone of the story.

Disney spends 30 minutes building Mufasa as an embedded father figure in the life of Simba, as well as the key position in the pride. Their entire society would be nothing without him, and Simba looks to him for structure and security. His ominous speech about succession to the throne and the ‘circle of life’ only furthers the deep connection between father and son. Simba is at a key turning point in his life, where the formation of his worldview can be drastically affected by the events around him, much like human adolescence, something we’re all familiar with.

This is only made too real when he loses Mufasa in a bombastic chain of tragic events orchestrated by his uncle, Scar. This juxtaposes a comedic, musical movie up to this point, with comic relief Hyena’s that only make the lowest point that much harder to bear. Simba is unaccustomed to loss, and his fruitless attempts to revive his dad really drive it home. He’s just a kid and this is his emotional rite of passage. If he can make it through this he can do anything.

This culminates in Simba feeling an overwhelming amount of guilt, resulting in his exile. The Lion King is about growth, so when we see a misunderstood character like Simba go through relatable trauma, it evokes a wealth of emotion. In his exile, he runs away from himself in both a symbolic and physical sense. His family meant everything to him, but now they think he’s responsible for the death of his father. He struggles to come to terms with the emotional depth of his situation and has to realise a truth about himself (with the help of his new friends, Timon and Pumba) before he can make his triumphant return.

Toy Story 3 – Andy Says Goodbye To His Toys

Toy Story 3 is another movie that manages to resonate with both children and adults. The visual aesthetic appeals to a younger audience, but the themes touched upon are relatable with persons of all ages, and when deconstructed form a powerful tale. The first two movies set up the premise. Toys are alive when you’re not looking. Simple and effective, and more of a comedy than a moving piece of cinema.

That’s why the third instalment hits home when it enters the final act and plays with everything you’ve known about the safe, family-oriented series so far. You start to become weary as the movie deals with a character who has lost his imagination and believes all toys are just plastic and hold no sentimental value. Lotso has become jaded by the harsh reality of finding himself replaceable. This resonates with every adult who has put their toys down and moved onto more ‘important’ matters beyond childhood, even though it is something that we’re all inherently bound to.

Following this, the band of toys you’ve come to know and love (the series spanning 15 years, an entire childhood in itself) face an impossible situation, a furnace. They hold hands and resign themselves to their fate, only to fake out and be rescued by the aliens. Any moviegoer probably thought this was the emotional crux of the movie, but it comes back around with a haymaker that nobody was expecting.

The whole movie is about Andy’s imposed hierarchy on his toys that he can’t quite let go of. He knows he needs to grow up, but Woody was always his partner, so he chooses to take him to college and leave the rest behind for the attic. This has an effect on Woody, who is seen as the lucky pariah leaving his old friends for new pastures, much like any teen heading out for a university. Both Andy and Woody struggle in the run up to the big move, Woody eventually convincing himself that he can’t go it alone. They both have to depart and grow without each other. He signals Andy towards Bonnie, a little girl who has the time to appreciate toys like he did when he was younger.

He shows her each of his toys, creating one of his famous stories, but when it gets to Woody he instinctively pulls away when she goes to grab him. This is where the tears really start flowing. He’s still inherently connected to the toys and sees them as an important part of his life that he’s moving on from. This sentiment is most prescient in the adults who’ve come back to this children’s movie 11 years later. To experience an immense piece of closure that is true to their own lives as well as the character on screen is the definition of movie magic.

Inside Out – Sadness Helps Riley

Inside Out takes a bold step even for Pixar and turns your emotions into animated characters, commenting on how hard it is to manage the complexity of the human brain. Riley is a young girl dealing with leaving her friends behind to move to a big city and start her life anew. Her head is depicted as an intricate machine ran by five warring emotions who can’t quite cope with the pressure, a reflection of her external self during this tumultuous part of her life. Much like the comedy of The Lion King, the first act toys with the idea of emotions as physical beings in a playful manner, exposing some of our ridiculous habits and trying to create a structure to the brain with hilarious results.

The two main characters Joy and Sadness struggle to co-operate throughout the film, with Joy wanting to make Riley as happy as possible, with Sadness manifesting as a foolish intruder on her plans, resulting in her being considered as a problematic part in the makeup of Riley’s emotions. Generally, we’re taught to suppress sadness rather than embrace it and associate it with shame. Pixar teaches us an important message in this movie, that we should embrace and attempt to understand Sadness as a core part of the emotional lineup, as it is the basis through which we empathise for others.

This culminates in a powerful scene when Riley is leaving town on a random bus, estranged from her family and her internal struggles. A common, relatable problem: she has bottled up her feelings for too long about something important, and forgotten to find time to try and rationalise what she’s experiencing. They finally allow Sadness a seat at the console, and this opens the flood works.

Riley runs home and opens up to her parents about how she’s really feeling. This emotional release felt by both the characters and the moviegoer expands the complexity of the console within Riley’s brain so that each emotion can have a greater amount of control over Riley. They achieve a greater understanding, realising that Sadness has been a part of every core memory as she’s grown up, and they decide to move back home with each of the characters having a better understanding of their emotions.

In Part 2 we’ll be looking at three more brilliant emotional moments within Animated Films. Everyone has their own favourite moment, please tweet us yours @kurodragon.