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Page last updated at 11:54 GMT, Wednesday, 16 December 2009

How do you make children's films appeal to adults?

Scenes from Toy Story, Shrek and Up
Pixar and Dreamworks Animation have been instrumental in the trend

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

You might be forgiven for thinking children's films are for children and adults have their own films. But 2009 - with the likes of Up and Where the Wild Things Are - has seen the triumph of the trend towards making children's films that speak to grown-ups too.

Anyone who has ever ventured into a children's Saturday matinee will recognise the following.

A hubbub. Not like that at pub or party, but a persistent susurration as children ask "Mummy, why is the fox friends with the rabbit?" and riffle their popcorn like a prospector panning for gold.

Above this child-centred cacophony is the film, and how the adult custodians feel about that film defines whether or not they are happy to brave this whispered maelstrom to see the sequel in 18 months time.

The Lion King: echoes of Hamlet
Chicken Run: loose parody of The Great Escape
Wall-E: Wall-E and shiny white robot Eve make noise like Apple Mac booting
The Incredibles: discussion of dangers of baddies 'monologuing' and allowing hero to escape
Up: the old man is styled to look like Spencer Tracy
Finding Nemo: seagull scene echoes Hitchcock's The Birds

The Hollywood moguls didn't get where they are without being aware that the ultimate film is one that audiences of every age and type can sit through.

If the adults think there is something in it for them, they may even be more sympathetic to the shameless wave of merchandising aimed at their pestering offspring.

In recent years, this has led to "children's" films being replete with the kind of jokes that adults know are aimed at them. A green ogre voiced by Mike Myers in 2001 was a notable example.

"Shrek was seized upon as a turning point in that it had very definitely one kind of a text for kids and definitely a subtext for adults," says Justin Johnson, head of the Children's Film Programme at the British Film Institute.

Shrek was not the first to have jokes aimed at adults, but the sheer volume and the self-consciousness of the tactic stood out to reviewers.

The earlier Toy Story movies had contained jokes that would have been lost on children, particularly in the form of references to other films.

John Lasseter and characters from Toy Story
John Lasseter has been one of the key figures in Pixar's success

In Toy Story 2, the scenes where Rex is seen in the rear view mirror pursuing the jeep in a parody of Jurassic Park, or the part where Zurg falls down the shaft a la Return of the Jedi, are going to be missed by many children.

And in the first Toy Story film, Buzz Lightyear's existential crisis after he discovers he is "just" a toy, is a profoundly adult theme.

In Finding Nemo, there is a double layer joke in the idea that sharks could form an Alcoholics Anonymous-style group to help them give up fish. The fact that this diet would be deleterious to real sharks is supposed to provoke a further internal chuckle.

This year's Up represented a high water mark for the tactic, says Tony Earnshaw, head of film programming at the National Media Museum.

"There are so many layers to that film. It is more than just a standard cartoon or animated movie."

There has to be a smorgasbord of appeal in these modern family films to keep the adults interested, he says.

"If there isn't, all they can do is listen to the kids crunch popcorn and slurp their drinks."

No matter how many references you hang around them if you haven't got a good story you haven't got a good film
Justin Johnson

It is not just pure animations that blur the boundaries.

Much of the critics' reception for the Spike Jonze's adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are seems to centre on the idea that it is not really a children's story at all.

Jonze seemed to confirm it himself when he told an American newspaper: "The main goal wasn't to make a children's movie. I wanted to make a movie about childhood."

Perhaps such an approach is inevitable when adults are asked to adapt a work that was important to them in their childhood.

There is certainly a question of what is a children's film. Are there, in fact, only "family" films? Why is there a presumption that an animation is aimed at children, unless demonstrated otherwise?

Ayn Rand?

The Incredibles, released in 2004, satirises the litigiousness of US society, as those saved by superheroes take legal action against them, forcing their saviours into an equivalent of the witness protection programme.

Adherents of the individualist thinker Ayn Rand analysed the movie through the prism of her philosophy, noting that the film appears to attack the oppressive egalitarianism that forces superheroes to disguise their powers.

In The Incredibles, the superhero mother tells her son: "Everyone's special." He replies sotto voce: "Which is another way of saying no one is."

For many this Pseuds Corner type analysis of an animated family comedy is just a bit too much. And there are also films that have been criticised for going too far in their attempts to amuse the adults in the audience.

After the success of Shrek, the sequel has a sight gag allusion to the beach kissing scene in From Here to Eternity early on and proceeds with a slew of references from there, including the notion of Princess Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz), having a poster of Justin Timberlake (Diaz's then boyfriend).

But by Shrek the Third, some may be getting a bit worn out by the grown-up cultural references.

The Simpsons
The Simpsons was a cartoon for adults from the start

"By Shrek the Third, the films got outdated - the references were so contemporary," says Mr Johnson. One can't imagine watching in 30 years time and it all still working.

Some questioned why 2004's Shark Tale was constructed around references to The Godfather. "They were building the film around their voice cast," says Mr Johnson.

He says that when the pop references are done well, they are unobtrusive to the watching children and those adults who are slow on the uptake.

"It's very covert. It isn't a kind of showstopper. Shrek the Third was just one gag after another.

"In terms of the fundamental good family film, the story is absolutely the driver. No matter how many references you hang around them if you haven't got a good story you haven't got a good film."

Below is a selection of your comments.

As an adult, the most touching moment I recall was in Finding Nemo. The scene at the beginning, where Marlin is excited by becoming a father, then has to come to terms with losing his wife and all but one of their eggs to a barracuda was so like my own sense of loss at a miscarriage that I had to leave the cinema to compose myself. It was the first - and only - time I have cried in public as an adult.
Anonymous Man, UK

I can't help but feel that the movie industry hasn't invented something new here - you only need to pick up any Asterix book to find numerous layers of humour that your average child reader would not have picked up on. Examples: - Two Roman legionaries in the book Asterix in Britain being called Sendhervictorius and Appianglorious. The village druid being called Getafix. These are of course jokes in the English translations, as the original French references were more politically driven and so would not have made any sense in the UK.
Steve, London

Buzz Lightyear bears an uncanny resemblance to former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and I'm convinced it's no accident. In Toy Story 2 there's even a scene where Buzz plays with a toy keyboard and it displays the message: "Nice try Brian." I can't be sure but I'll bet a Canadian played a large role in the development of Buzz. I know that most of the film's viewers never got the joke, but some Canadians certainly did.
Gary Blakeley, Toronto, Canada

Nothing new about adult references in children's entertainment. I remember re-watching an old Bugs Bunny cartoon from the 1970s as an adult and suddenly realising it was a (brilliant) parody of the opera, the Marriage of Figaro.
Legis, Harpenden, UK

The Lion King films are all based around Shakespeare, in a way. The first is Hamlet, as the article says, while the second is Romeo & Juliet and the third - a retelling of the original story from the perspective of the comic relief characters - is essentially Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Yes, I spend far too much time analysing children's films.
Olly, Bournemouth

Surely one of the best cartoons with double meanings is/was television's Dangermouse where every other line seemed to be a double entendre or subtle adult joke.
Steve, London

While I can enjoy a bit of double meaning, it has gone so far and the pop cultural references so many, that these types of films have lost their charm and even have made me wonder if the target audience isn't adults rather than children. Every character nowadays has to be based on a wise cracking rapper or some cynical anti-hero. I enjoyed Shrek, but even then I felt that it was aimed at too old an audience. I used to hate the naive, cute Disney classics, but now as a father of a three-year-old, I find that I have almost nothing in his age bracket to entertain him apart from Dumbo, Winnie the Pooh. The fact that the new computer animated Winnie the Pooh is made in such a 'cool' way, with costumes and extraneous characters is a reason he doesn't like it.
Mariusz, Australia

I don't see anything mentioned about the most unfortunate sexual references and crude humor that ruin most of these so called children's films. These are marked PG for a reason - they are not really suitable for children - unless you don't mind having crude, rude children who are sexualised early in life. Although I found Up to be an exception, the Barbie references in Toy Story, and the lewd and crude comments in Shrek are truly offensive. Please allow there to be films for kids - parents should be allowed to enjoy their own films. I can't imagine my folks feeling they had to be entertained by my kiddie matinees. Our kid movies were just for - kids.
Enfants6, Nevada City, USA

We all know that Chicken Run was a remake of The Great Escape but who noticed that the chicken who couldn't lay eggs was called Edwina.
Russell O'Brien, Nottingham

I particularly liked Shark Tale where there is a glimpse of the nude pencil portrait of Rose from Titanic wearing the Heart of the Ocean necklace.
Di, The Castleton, North Yorks

A friend and I went to see Where The Wild Things are at the weekend (we're both in our early 20s) and loved it - but we definitely got more out of it than the children in the cinema. They seemed to lost interest and got fidgety while their parents were absorbed in the brilliant psychological representation of the Wild Things as aspects of Max; definitely more for people like me who grew up with the book.
Tegan H, Birmingham, UK

One of the best sources of adult humour in children's video was the old "Rocky and Bullwinkle" animated US TV series in the early 60s. It was loaded with jokes and puns that only an adult would appreciate, and some which likely zoomed over the heads of many adults. It was very popular with high-school and college students of the era (though likely very few older adults discovered it).
Dan, Byron, MN USA

I'm always interested in how a lot of family TV/film works on so many levels and provide something for everyone. Once I was watching an episode of The Simpsons with a group of friends, all around the same age but of different backgrounds, and noticed that we were all laughing, but at different things. As well as the cultural references mentioned quite a lot in this article, family TV/films can send up reality or contain humour that's a bit more grown-up than the usual kiddies' slapstick - so even if the cultural references become dated in the future, there's still plenty to keep teens and adults amused. Hopefully they will stand the test of time.
Helen, Worthing, UK

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