Look through the list of this year’s Oscar nominees in the animated feature category and you’ll find each hero’s journey hinges on the same thing — family. They’re either struggling to break free, trying to find their place in the world or looking back on a mystery. In every case, it’s messy.
Most of the filmmakers leaned into their own experiences with family and mined tidbits for their films. The result is movies that hits specific notes but play well for larger audiences who see themselves in the families on screen.
“One of the goals of the movie is to get kids and parents to kind of see each other and see the world through each other’s perspectives,” says Michael Rianda, helmer of “The Mitchells vs. the Machines.”
“Because, when I was a teenager, I was a little brat and later I realized [my parents] cooked for me every night and they did my laundry. You really don’t appreciate that stuff at the time. And I also think that my dad liked kids when they were young and loved him unconditionally but, later, when me and my brothers and sisters grew up and had personalities of our own he wasn’t sure how to deal with it.”
In “Mitchells,” the main characters learned to live with each other’s quirks and embrace their own obsessions. These unique passions also made them even more real and recognizable for the audience.
“Oddly, the more specific and weird they were, the more you’re likely to say, ‘Hey! My dad is like that!”
Rianda says. “In our film the dad is a nature nut, and Katie is this art student that’s LGBTQ-plus and sort of figuring out who she is in the world, and [little brother] Aaron loves dinosaurs. The deeper we went into the specifics, the more I feel like people felt seen.”
Just as Katie Mitchell finds her way in the world, in “Luca” also is a normal boy on land hiding the fact that he’s really a sea monster. The film is a coming-of-age take on what it’s like to live with a secret and not know whether people will like you if they learn it.
“The nice thing about the metaphor of being a sea monster is that it’s the kind of thing you can bring your own story to, since it’s a fantasy,” says Andrea Warren, producer of “Luca.” “It’s a really wonderful part of a character. Many people who’ve seen the movie tell me they related to that aspect because they felt they never fit in, or they were an immigrant or because they are LGBTQ. There are so many different stories that fit that idea of just not being sure if it was safe to be who they are.”
Luca has been a dutiful son to his parents but, at a certain point, after experiencing life out of the sea, he wants to chart his own course. He comes into his own when he can tell his sea monster parents he loves them and can still set off on his own journey.
Some journeys aren’t chosen, though. “Flee,” a personal memoir that unfolds as a documentary animated film, tells the story of Amin Nawabi, the pseudonym for a refugee from Afghanistan. He is relocated to Denmark to live with a foster family and meets the director of the film, Jonas Poher Rasmussen, when they’re both teenagers. Amin recounts the story of his own separated family as he is about to marry
“[Amin] had a strong family and people around him could help him,” says Rasmussen. “You know, it was really difficult. I think the reason why he did so well and managed to kind of start rebuilding his life with friends, it was because he had strong family. They helped to support him and will always be there for him. He had the support of his family but then afterwards that he has no family around, once he was in Denmark. He wasn’t ready to talk about the things that happened for a long time, that his father disappeared and was taken away. So, I think there are these feelings of guilt about family that couldn’t be with him and it makes him work harder than anyone I have ever known because he feels like he has been given a second chance.”
In “Raya and the Last Dragon,” there’s also longing for a lost father and the young, female protagonist must take on her coming-of-age journey without him physically in her life. As she discovers other ways to connect with his spirit, she can embrace her family history.
“We always had that desire to tell that story, but it wouldn’t have worked if not for a relatable family dynamic,” says Don Hall, co-director of the film. “It really is a movie about this young woman trying to get her dad back, just trying to reunite with a father.”
Adds Carlos Lopez Estrada, co-director of “Raya”: “[Raya’s father] is felt all throughout the film and his advice and his philosophy of unifying people is really what drives Raya, and even when the dragon joins her journey, we were thinking of her as an avatar for [her father] Benja. What she really does is that she becomes Raya’s mentor in the journey. Raya really picks up that same philosophy of trust, that same philosophy of unifying people, and it’s almost as if dad were around through the dragon, so it was really like every single story decision that we were making was directly connected to that relationship.”
Raya plays a distinct leadership role in her family as a kind of warrior princess. In some stories the central characters suffer from not knowing who they are in their family or the world. The struggles of “Encanto’s” Mirabel begin when she seems to be the only one in her family without a magical gift of some kind.
“ Charise Castro Smith, our co-director and co-writer, also did such a fantastic job with archetypes,” says “Encanto” co-helmer Jared Bush. “We really started talking about archetypes within families and family roles that you find in many families. So, over the course of several years of telling the story, many times as an exercise, we would pull the magic out completely to make sure that the story is still functioning, whether there’s magic in it or not. We always knew there would be magic, but we wanted to make sure that the story didn’t solely rely on that because the relatability that we were hoping to achieve was out of feeling like the black sheep or being the one that bears all the responsibility or the one that feels they have to be perfect the time. And the powers and the gifts are just sort of a heightened extrapolation of those things.”
Families may seem different at first, but in some ways they’re very much the same.
“A lot of people have a lot of baggage [with family] and the bag gage is the most interesting stuff to sing about and learn about,” says “Encanto” co-helmer Byron Howard. “Every time we kept coming back to that the movie got more and more relatable to us because personally I have a lot of baggage.”