As Toy Story 4 hits the cinemas, Emily Howarth considers the lessons youth and children’s workers can learn about how to engage all the family from the Disney Pixar franchise
Who else is wary of so-called all-age services? It’s almost become fashionable to slate them for involving an awkward action song, some unrelated game and an overly simple message that teaches nobody anything.
But, do you know where the whole family gets together and laughs, cries, learns and is entertained? Sat in front of a Disney Pixar movie.
I went to the screening of Toy Story 4 as sceptical as I when I step into an all-age service. I loved the first three films and I could just see them releasing the film equivalent of a slowly deflated balloon – a money-driven excuse to keep the franchise limping on.
Firstly, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Disney Pixar is still on top form. But what I’m more interested in is how animated films have walked where few churches ever have: engaging all the family with the same message. Here’s why I think they’ve managed it:
They don’t dumb down the message
Disney Pixar has never shied away from covering some pretty deep topics, particularly in their most recent releases. Coco covers the afterlife and family identity. Wall-e covers human greed and the importance of conservation. Inside Out is a go-to film to ask questions about emotional resilience. Up gets you thinking about childhood dreams, aging and even the pain of losing a child (I’m definitely not welling up thinking about that opening scene).
Disney Pixar do this because they know children and adults need to have a space to express their experiences – the good, the bad and the downright tough. And they know children can take it. Why is Disney Pixar giving children that space and the Church isn’t?
They’re not scared to cover scary things
If you know me you’ll know that I find fake versions of human faces super creepy. Clowns and dolls freak me out. So when I saw the baddies for Toy Story 4 I was not comfortable. I mean, look at them! Kids wouldn’t be comfortable either. But fear often forms a part of the Toy Story franchise.
Now before you chuck me out for implying that we should terrify kids in church, that is not what I’m saying. I repeat: do not terrify kids in church! What I do mean is that there are ways of sensitively including the scarier parts of life in all-age services in a way that is all-age appropriate. Like Mary’s fear of having a baby out of wedlock in a 1st Century Jewish village. Or Jesus’ fear as he realised he was going to the cross.
We shouldn’t avoid elements of human emotion from our all-age service stories or kids will grow up picturing the Bible as one-dimensional happy characters in a fake far off land, which is even less relatable than toys that come alive when you look away.
They are funny
Toy Story 4 is hilarious. It includes jokes that reach each age on a different level. It’s deep and witty and through the jokes, it pulls together the whole family in a good belly laugh.
Jesus was an equally artful storyteller. His parables shocked. They were, in parts, absurd to the point of laughter for the 1stCentury audience hearing them. Shouldn’t our messages achieve the same?