Photo Credit: FOX
It annoys me when an animated movie character makes a pop-culture joke that goes far over my kids' heads. Take 2008’s Horton Hears a Who -- not to mention Aladdin, Monsters vs. Aliens, Shrek, Happy Feet, Madagascar and many more.
My kids and I re-watched Horton recently, and for all its sweet Seuss charm, the dialogue also included ridiculous and completely extraneous references to Apocalypse Now, MySpace, Ted Kennedy, REO Speedwagon and Kissinger. Yes, Henry Kissinger!
Jim Carrey, the star of the film, didn't so much become Horton (a feat known as "acting") as Horton became Carrey. As the story's big-eared hero, he clowned around as if he had no regard for the character or the story, just focusing on his own comic likeability.
Film critic Jim Lane makes the point well in his 2008 review of Horton: "It amounts to making entertainment for adults by hijacking a story intended for kids -- and despite the gleaming animation and all-star voices, it's unseemly, like a playground bully snatching the best toys from helpless toddlers."
Too many contemporary animated films succumb to "Shrek-ification" -- that is, getting stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey with out-of-nowhere "aren't I clever!" pop-culture references.
Writing stand-up jokes is easier than writing smart contextual comedic stories, which is why at least one character in almost every modern kids' movie has a wise-cracking Patch Adams side. I thought Hollywood got rid of the annoying Robin Williams schtick for good, but it seems like Tinseltown only passed it off to the kiddies.
It doesn't have to be this way. Finding Nemo, Up, The Lion King, The Incredibles, Pocahontas, Wall-E and pretty much everything prior to Aladdin succeed without these references. In fact, in 1991, Beauty and the Beast became the only animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (and it wasn't even in 3D!). These days, it would've been obligatory for Belle or Gaston or the Beast to be portrayed with Shrek-like gusto by Williams, Carrey or Mike Myers (with an '80s pop tune tacked onto at the end for nostalgic parents). That would've been fun... and ruinous.
Not all good kids' films eschew pop-culture references altogether, but they do put their humor in the context of the story and keep it within the understanding of children. They treat kids as kids -- not condescendingly, but with enough dignity to avoid selling out great literature.
If I want to laugh, I'll see The Hangover or I Love You, Man. If I’m bringing my kids to a movie, there's no need to pander to me independently. I want them to enjoy and appreciate every minute of a movie made for them.
Newsflash: If it's made well, I'll appreciate every moment, too.
Do some kids' films suffer from too many pop culture jokes? Chime in below!