Since their conception, animated films have been viewed as visual entertainment largely targeted at children – an instinctive conclusion to arrive at given their happy endings, didactic messages and flat characters. This is especially evident in films such as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. While children enjoy these animated films, adults too partake in the experience these films create for their audience. However, the film experience lived by adults should not be equated to that which children appreciate. Animated films speak to adults in a vastly different way and it is this very experience that can be examined critically.
While children generally enjoy animated films for their aesthetic value and characters’ overtly humorous antics, adults engage with these films at a more complex level, though very often subconsciously. This engagement is realized in a number of ways, three of which will be focused on in this paper — intertextuality, references to world knowledge and language use. Though these aspects are certainly not mutually exclusive, the research in this paper will be organized as such for the purpose of clarity.
Four animated films will be used as data for the aforementioned analysis. They are Dreamwork’s Shrek (2001) and Shark Tale (2004) and Disney/Pixar’s Cars (2006) and Finding Nemo (2003). These films have been chosen as objects of analysis, firstly, because they are all largely marketed to children, as can be seen from the trailers.
Due to the fact that children appear to be the main targert audience of all these films, it is fascinating to venture beyond the superficial and analyse the covert, subliminal and complex ways in which adults are engaged — as opposed to a film that is overtly marketed to adults.
Secondly, these films were all released within five years of one another to ensure that the variation that diachronic change brings does not affect the study to a large extent.
Thirdly, they have all received accolades (IMDb, 2012). This is a marker of their positive reception by most and reveals that the filmmakers have crafted the movie with precision and purposefulness. This shows that they are generally of level standing in the movie arena, allowing them to engage in a comparative analysis together.
Animated films make many allusions to other films, some animated, some not and often, many which children will not be familiar with. These references are sometimes used to create humour. An example of which can be seen in Shrek, where Princess Fiona’s fighting scene, with Robin Hood and his merry men, shows her skillfully posing in mid-air. This is an overt reference to an iconic scene in The Matrix (1999), where the female lead, Trinity struck the same pose. This parodies The Matrix in a comical and lighthearted fashion.
Similarly, in Finding Nemo, the swarming in of seagulls in the clip below resonates links to the seagull scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds, also featured below. Hitchcock’s intense horror film is good-naturedly undercut and mocked and children will not be able to appreciate this element of humor.
There are also numerous references to specific characters and actors – whom most children would not be familiar with. Such references legitimize the film with the actors’ reputations, to create a sense of character depth or to concretize the realism of characters. For example, mafia-themed Shark Tale alludes to the 1972 gangster movie, The Godfather. Don Lino governs the underwater world in Shark Tale, and is voiced by Robert De Niro, who also played Don Vito Corleone, the head of the mob in The Godfather II. To make this connection even more salient, Don Lino, in a mimetic fashion (Talib, 2011), has a mole on his cheek that strongly resembles Robert De Niro himself. This technique of mimesis is also applied to other characters in Shark Tale, such as Oscar, voiced by Will Smith and Lola, voiced by Angelina Jolie. While this connection is overt to an adult viewer, it is unlikely that this would be apparent to a child and the benefits reaped from such a connection would not materialize for children. The aforementioned examples can be seen below:
The use of music, by filmmakers, as a means of intertextual allusion, is also prevalent, though subtle. This is often used to frame the scene by indexing certain settings. In Finding Nemo when the character Darla, a terrifying young girl, is seen by the protagonists (Nemo and the other sea creatures) entering the dentist’s office, “The Murder” from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchock’s 1960 film Psycho accompanies her arrival (IMDb, 2012). This particular piece symbolizes the terror that Darla brings to the story, simultaneously invoking the same sense of distress in viewers, induced by events from the Hitchcock movie.
Similarly, in Shark Tale, the Jaws (1975) theme song is played in the background as the silhouette of a shark creeps up from behind a worm being used as bait for fishing (IMDb, 2012). With the anticipation created by the music, the audience is made to believe that the shark is set to devour the worm. However, it heroically saves the worm instead, and this irony is a source of humour for the audience.
It would be erroneous to say that such humour cannot be appreciated by one without knowledge of the films alluded to in the aforementioned examples. Surely, the jarring tones rising to a crescendo, of the Jaws theme create an ominous atmosphere, which would make a child aware of the expected danger in the situation. However, it is the knowledge of these films that allows one to enjoy the delicate nuances which make the situation more humorous, and thus, the entire experience all the more enjoyable.
2) References to World Knowledge
Animated films are also created based on existing structures or assumed prior knowledge on the part of the audience. This is done through the use of stereotypes and archetypes, which the audience is presumed to be familiar with to provide a more complete understanding of the films. When characters, which physically embody these stereotypes or the archetypes themselves, are introduced, an informed audience will be able to immediately identify the inherent qualities associated to the characters without the filmmakers having to explicitly reveal them.
This can be seen in Crush and Squirt, the surfer turtles, in Finding Nemo. They are presented with droopy eyes and a laidback attitude. The main activity they do is just to follow and surf in the waves. They use words such as “dude” and “sweet” when interacting with Marlin and Dory. When audience sees these physical attributes, they conjure an image of a Californian surfer, who like the turtles, is relaxed and riding the waves.
Another example of such stereotypes and archetypes is the jellyfish in Shark Tale. The jellyfish sport dreadlocks and beanies and speak with a Jamaican accent. With the portrayal of these physical attributes, the audience are able to identify them as Rastafarian. This accordingly hints at their practices, for example, that they engage in the use of cannabis and listen to reggae music, thus situating them in a specific context.
In addition to the employment of stereotypes and archetypes, animated films also play on the knowledge of existing social practices. They mirror or reflect reality. This is exemplified in Shrek when the Magic-Mirror-on-the-Wall shows Lord Farquaad his potential dates. This is done in the manner, which resembles dating game shows. This is further emphasized by the Magic-Mirror altering his voice to mimic a typical “game show host” voice, in a parodic fashion.
Lastly, animated films also play on the audience’s recognition of existing social groups or organizations, and the discourse associated to them. For example, in Finding Nemo, we also see that the shark, Bruce, is part of an organization of sharks, which has sworn off consuming fish. As he introduces himself, “Hello, my name is Bruce”, the other sharks collectively reply “Hi Bruce” in a manner that clearly mimics the operations of Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization that tries to help alcoholics recover from their addiction to alcohol. This parallel makes the sharks appear even more comical as they have taken their seemingly natural inclination to fish too seriously. The film also, albeit insensitively, manipulates the stigma of Alcoholics Anonymous to comical ends.
It is thus evident that animated films base much of their humour on assumed existing knowledge of the audience. This knowledge is unlikely to be found in a child and the comic effect and wit are specially designed for adults to indulge in. Unfortunately, this is often done in such a way that stereotypes are perpetuated or social problems are trivialized. This is problematic, as if children were to pick up on these jokes, they might not have the discernment to divorce reality from humor, unlike presumably wiser adults.
3) Language Use
Language in animated films plays a huge part in providing a different experience for the adult audience as compared to children. Adults are better able to read the subtext of films, which children may have difficulty, if not an inability, to detect. In other words, language is manipulated to speak in a seemingly unequivocal way to children, while, in actuality, also communicating with adults in a significantly different manner. This language manipulation is done through the use of word-play, cultural slang and sarcasm.
Word-play is largely used to humorous ends. One way in which word-play is employed is through the use of puns. Puns, surely, are more likely to be understood by adults, and this is evident in Cars. It features a talk show titled “The Jay Limo Show”, with the character Jay Limo himself as the talk show host. Interestingly, as mentioned earlier, Jay Limo is voiced by Jay Leno. This association clearly points to the pun that the film is making with regard to the prime time American talk show “The Jay Leno Show.”
In Shrek 2, there is word-play on famous brands names, which include Burger Prince (Burger King), Olde Knavery (Old Navy), Versarchery (Versace), Tower of London Records (Tower Records), Gap Queen (Gap Kids), Barney’s Old York (Barney’s New York), Farbucks Coffee (Starbucks), Saxon Fifth Avenue (Saks Fifth Avenue) and Baskin Robinhood (Baskin Robins ice cream) (McEwen, 2004). Though some of the brands may be familiar to children and adults alike, the word-play on certain names related to designer clothes and accessories including Versace, Barney’s New York (a chain of luxury department stores selling designer brands) and Sak’s Fifth Avenue, may be less familiar to children. Therefore, such word-play which children may not understand provides proof to the irony that animated films are looking to entertain adults and not just children.
Word-play materializing in the form of sexual innuendos in animated films also reveals that the target audience of animated films includes adults apart from just children. Sexual innuendos are implicit and require a certain level of maturity and understanding in establishing the relationship between what is expressed and the sexual connotation that comes with it. An example of this is seen in the Robin Hood scene in Shrek:
Robin Hood sings: “I like a little spite in a saucy little maid!”
Merry men: “What he’s basically saying is he likes to get –“
Merry men: “PAID!”
Found at 0.57
From the pause, adult audience understands that the intended word that rhymes with “paid”, which comes after, to fill the pause is actually “laid”, a term which adults understand to mean engaging in sexual intercourse. However, the word “paid” is used instead to mask the intended word as “laid” is inappropriate for children. Only adults can better understand the humour created from this.
Another example of the use of sexual innuendos intended for adults is seen in Cars. One of the characters Mater exclaims, “You get to work with Bessie! I’ll give my left two lug nuts for something like that”. The double entendre of ‘nuts’ is evident. On the literal level, lug nut refers to a nut used to secure the wheels on vehicles while on the metaphorical level, it refers to the male reproductive glands that produce sperms. It is less likely for children to understand the sexual innuendo intended here. They may understand that the lug nut is appropriate in the context since it has relations to cars/ vehicles. They, however, are unable to comprehend the reference made to the male reproductive gland as a joke as they would have unlikely encounter the sexual connotation tied to nut. Therefore, this use of sexual innuendos clearly shows that animated films are to entertain adults as much as children.
Apart from sexual innuendos, the employment of cultural slang by the characters in animated films hints that these animated films are catering towards adults as well as children. For example in Shark Tale, the character Oscar uses ebonics in his speech with terms including “dig dawg”, “keep it real”, “respect” and “get your freak on” (Putman, 2011). Ebonics is much more commonly found in adult-oriented television programmes as compared to children-oriented television programmes. Consequently, children are less able to comprehend the slang employed in animated films.
The use of sarcasm in animated films also proves that the target audience of animated films includes adults. Sarcasm requires the audience to go beyond the literal meaning to interpret the metaphorical meaning of the expression, which children may have difficulty in doing. Adults, however, are better able to detect the sarcasm and decipher the metaphorical meaning of the expression. This is exemplified in Cars as found in Minny’s dialogue; “You go from zero to sixty, in what, three and a half years?”. From here, children may be unable to understand the sarcasm embedded in “three and a half years?” and take it that the duration indeed lasts that long while adults understand that it is an exaggeration meant as an insult, laced with condescension.
The examples aforementioned have clearly shown how animated films cater to both children and adult audiences. While children predominantly enjoy the more literal and superficial elements found in animated films, adults enjoy the subtleties, which the films offer. These subtleties require a more mature mindset and wider scope of world knowledge that children, more often than not, are not equipped with. These subtleties enhance the appeal for adults to watch animated films, as they stand as in-group markers. These in-group markers seem to imply that the filmmakers had the adults’ interests in mind in their careful construction of the films. This establishes a sort of solidarity between the adult audience and the filmmakers in such a way that endears the film to the adult audience. Nonetheless, the children too are kept perpetually engaged.
Having said that, it is vital to qualify that the way in which animated films are structured to cater to both children and adults cannot be viewed in extremes such as a boon or bane as there have been mixed reactions to the way in which these films are evolving. On one hand, some parents perceive such animated films to be movies for adults ‘sneakily’ disguised as films for children. An example of this sentiment can be seen in the following website:
Parents need to know that this movie is rated PG, but it includes some edgy humor directed at teens and adults. It’s a shame that Hollywood finds it necessary to include this material in a movie that would be otherwise perfect family fare, but that’s the economic reality of this era of moviemaking. The jokes teens and adults snicker at (like when Shrek wonders if the small Lord Farquaad is compensating for something with his very tall castle) will be over the heads of most younger kids, but parents should be ready for some questions.
On the other hand, some do not see this as a problem. Justin Johnson, head of the Children’s Film Programme at the British Film Institute applauded Shrek and said that:
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.
These are just two examples of the wide variety of reactions that such animated films are receiving. Due to the fact that these films are still lauded by many, as mentioned earlier, they cannot be condemned or dismissed as inappropriate for children and it is undoubtedly a parent’s prerogative whether to introduce such films to their children. Perhaps some parents would be more accepting of such adult-oriented language and humour in animated films, if trailers for such films warned viewers of such features.
Possibly then, a study of such features in animated films serves as a motivation to reconsider age-old assumptions about animated films. These age-old assumptions include the idea that animated films are solely for children. Cartoon movies such as the Disney Princess series have dominated the perception of animated films and moulded the perception of the medium of animation as solely for children’s entertainment. However, the rise of animated films and series such as Family Guy, The Simpsons and South Park, which are solely for adults, overtly destabilize such assumptions. Movies such as Shrek, Shark Tale, Finding Nemo and Cars do so in a more subtle, but just as persuasive. If the definition of the purpose of animated films were shifted, would one have any right to condemn films for being movies for adults, in disguise? Alternatively, would an overt acknowledgment of the fact that animated films are for both adults and children reduce the thrill in finding hidden elements that speak to adults?
What is interesting to note, then, is that this adult-oriented nature of animated films is not a surprisingly recent development. The use of adult-oriented elements in animated films can be traced back to the older cartoons. This seems to suggest that it is not a new phenomenon and is a norm for these films to include such elements. This practice of infusing adult-oriented elements can be clearly seen in bugs bunny, which had traces of adult humour (Wikipedia, 2012). Yet, what sets more recent animated films apart is the fact that new production houses such as Dreamworks and Pixar have quickly jumped on the bandwagon and are using such techniques widely in their animated films.
Ultimately, it can be seen that filmmakers of animated films include adult-oriented features for pragmatic reasons as well. By including such features, there is a wider scope of audience as both children and adult are included. This inclusion of both audiences translates to more income for the production houses. Eventually, it cannot be denied that production houses and filmmakers are driven to make profits. Hence, by infusing these adult-oriented elements in animated films, it draws the attention of both the children and their parents. Even without children, adults can still choose to watch the animated films since the films are not considered child- like or immature with the presence of the adult-oriented elements.
A study such as this is beneficial as it reveals the multi-dimensionality of a film. An understanding of the intricacies of the film and how creatively it is constructed, plays a part in creating a deeper relationship between the audience and the film. In the same way that round characters speak to people at much more visceral levels, multi-dimensional films too, are capable of this.
However, a number of limitations remain in this study. Firstly, there is little existing formal research done in this field, which deny the access to a wide market of reliable material against which findings of this essay can be more well supported. Secondly, with the expansive types of ways in which animated films speak to adults, only salient examples could be featured in this paper. There are, in actuality, far more examples embedded within the movie, which provide adults delight in a manner far different from children. Thirdly, themes such as sexual humour, political jibes, celebrity gossip and so on, which govern the nature of the ways in which adults are spoken to in animated films, cannot be explored fully in this essay due to spatial constraints. Henceforth, these limitations can pave way for further fruitful research.
This essay also opens doors to other areas of research. Using the findings from this study, an in depth comparative analysis between the types of adult humour found in the movies by different production houses can be compared. A diachronic analysis, setting animated films from different eras, against each other to compare how adult humour in animated films has tangibly changed, too, would be a fascinating field of study, with much to offer. The ways in which animated films speak to adults serve to teach us volumes, not only about the art of movie making, but also about how people are entertained, how different social groups relate to each other and how society operates.
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