Home, the latest animated feature from Dreamworks Animation, producers of the Shrek, Madagascar, and How to Train Your Dragon franchises, might seem at first a rather bland kids' movie. It seems like a quirky kids' book, Adam Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday, has been flattened out into another generic, cookie-cutter computer-animated tale.
The story of a little girl, her cat, and the alien that befriends her, Home mashes up the road trip movie with the "alien best friend" movie — like Toy Story with E.T. It's nothing you haven't seen before — and the opening montage, which seems to gloss over some horrifying plot points with pop music and Jim Parsons (of Big Bang Theory fame) at his Jim Parsons-iest, doesn't promise a great film.
But by the end, you may be surprised at just how much the relationship between alien Oh (Parsons) and little girl Tip (pop star Rihanna) has affected you.
What's also kind of fascinating about Home is that it directly confronts some of the most horrific parts of human history in a kid-friendly way. And this isn't buried deep down in the subtext. Home is really wrestling with things like colonialism and the legacy of America's treatment of Native Americans in the context of a brightly colored, peppily scored alien invasion tale.
So here are some unusually dark conversations you can have with your kids after Home's credits roll.
1) The long shadow of colonialism
At the center of Home are the Boov, an alien race that travels the universe, staying one step ahead of the Gorg, a race bent on the destruction of the Boov.
But in their attempts to protect their existence, the Boov will invade other planets, displace the native population, and declare themselves the great protectors and benefactors of those other species. They even change the name of Earth to "Smekland" after their Captain Smek (a horribly overacting Steve Martin).
This is, literally, the legacy of colonialism on planet Earth. A supposedly more "civilized" population moves into another land and comes into conflict with the people already living there — often forcing them into a subjugation the invaders think is somehow better for those living under it.
What sets this apart from other alien invasion tales is the way the Boov really do seem to think they've done humanity a huge favor just by showing up. And the film puts a giant spotlight on this particular theme in one of its best scenes, when Oh and Tip have a conversation about how she feels about the Boov's invasion while the two are hovering above the Atlantic Ocean in a floating car. (Hey, it is a science fiction movie.)
The gorgeous reflection of the car and the starlight on the placid ocean surface — reminiscent of Ang Lee's Life of Pi — underlines the movie's major theme: empathy. At the center of the film is the idea that the best thing you can do to be a better person is try to imagine how your actions impact other people.
To colonize people, you have to see them as somehow less than you — and that cuts against empathy at its core.
2) The placement of Native Americans on reservations
When the Boov arrive on Earth, they suck up all humans into their ships and deposit them in a giant city called "HappyHumansTown" in the middle of Australia. (Tip is missed because her cat clings to her head, thus causing the Boov to mistake her for a feline.) The Boov, again, think this is doing humanity a favor. Humans are less enthusiastic.
This idea dovetails with the film's interest in the influence of colonialism, but it's also a candy-colored examination of the United States sequestering Native Americans on reservations.
Obviously, Home doesn't deal with the most horrifying implications of the forced relocation of Native Americans. But the film does actively get kids to consider how terrible it would be to be forced to leave your home and relocated to an out-of-the-way place where nobody in the ruling class would have to think about you.
3) How hard it is to be an immigrant
Tip is Barbadian, like the woman voicing her, Rihanna. That marks her as an immigrant to another country. (It's pretty clear Tip lives in an American city.) It's one of the things she and Oh bond over: how nobody is quite sure what to make of them.
The audience is invited to identify with Oh early in the film. His fellow Boov don't really like him, and he's incredibly awkward in social situations. These are things all kids have dealt with at one time or another, and even Oh's struggles to master English syntax will resonate with many.
Tip's overriding goal — to get back to her mother — is also something kids will identify with. But stuck into the middle of her story is the knowledge that Tip, with her slight accent and brown skin, doesn't really fit in with the other kids in her school, who can be cruel about those things. Tip doesn't look like the hero of most animated kids' movies — who, if they're human, are usually white — and though Home doesn't make a big deal of it, it is aware of what her life must be like.
4) Impending environmental devastation
The Gorg, in their way, function in the way many rapacious alien races have in past stories — as a symbol of how horrible unchecked environmental devastation could be. The Gorg show up to a planet, literally chew it up with giant machines, and then make it explode. It's a common theme in sci-fi, and it's fun to see it turn up here.
But what's even more interesting is that the Gorg aren't just mindless invaders. They have a deeper motivation that is revealed slowly as the film goes on. Their long swath of destruction has all of the best intentions behind it — ones rooted in a kind of environmental devastation of their own. (To say more would be spoiling.)
This underlines a tough but important-to-understand idea: it's very hard to keep people from destructive behavior when they think they have everybody's best interests at heart.
5) Self-rationalization to make yourself feel like a good guy
At the heart of Home is an idea that's all too human but has also caused so much horror throughout history. We all want to think we're the good guy, and we all want to think we're part of the solution. But at various times, we'll do terrible things and definitely be part of the problem, and yet we rationalize to ourselves that this just isn't true.
If kids take nothing else from Home, then, they'll hopefully take this. Sometimes, something you think you know is 100 percent true — even about yourself — just isn't. Life is a long process of realizing just how wrong you can be, then dealing with that as gracefully and humanely as possible.
Home earns its surprisingly emotional climax because it takes this idea seriously. When Tip and Oh realize how wrong they've been about so many things, they begin moving toward real maturity and growth. That's something viewers of all ages can appreciate.
Also the cat is really cute.
Home is playing in theaters throughout the country.