The world is obsessed with children’s shows, and it’s not just the kids. From behind the G-rated screen, films and television have tapped into a market far beyond a child’s consciousness and comprehension. With the 1930 release of Disney’s first animated picture, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, adults also became consumed by radically fictionalized characters facing impossible odds to obtain a fantastical goal--and by the very adult themes disguised as children’s entertainment. This layered, multi-tiered brand of storytelling captivates on a mass scale like never before.

And it shows no signs of slowing down. In 2013, Disney released the global sensation, Frozen, a story of two princesses overcoming the sorrows of the past and their fears for the future to save their kingdom from an endless winter and a treasonous takeover. The movie skyrocketed in popularity within the targeted 3- to 12-year-old demographic. But behind the façade of a children’s adventure epic lies a brilliantly-told story that connects with all ages, pulling in almost $1.3 billion worldwide and making Frozen the fifth highest grossing movie to date.


via Flickr user Mike Mozart

Whether it’s parents watching alongside their young ones as a bonding activity or a group of post-college friends reveling in the “retro” pleasure of a Disney marathon, studios know that the grown-ups are watching.

Subliminal Appeal

This is nothing new. The animated short films Looney Tunes, launched by Warner Brothers in the 1930s, are the crown jewels in the golden age of American animation (1930-1969). Although Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Tweety Bird were universally-appealing, anthropomorphic characters, their hijinks were not standard kid fare: Bugs dazzling a none-the-wiser Elmer Fudd in full-on drag, Pepé Le Pew’s very “hands-on” forced-seduction tactics, and a myriad other adult jokes designed to pass right over a six-year old’s head.

The truth is, every film or television show billed as “for kids only” is often anything but. Whether studios employ dark, subversive humor or insert subtle sexual jokes and themes, Disney, Pixar, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, DreamWorks and, most recently, Hasbro all have implemented veiled elements to catch the “big kids’” attention. What was invisible to a four-year-old will suddenly “click” at age 15. Off-hand comments--such as SpongeBob holding out soap and warning his pet snail Gary “not to drop it,” or the Genie from Aladdin

remarking during an earthquake, “I thought the Earth wasn’t supposed to shake until the honeymoon”--suddenly fall into place. Scenes blithely watched for years now brim with sly adult references. The trick is to make sure it operates on both levels, so that adults aren’t bored and children don’t feel they’re missing something.

Wrangling with the Tiara

Studios capture adult audiences by ensuring childhood legacies remain relevant. The Disney Princess is the most prevalent franchise to bridge the age gap. These fairytale leading ladies, from old school heroines like Cinderella, Belle and Jasmine to the more modern Tiana, Rapunzel and Anna, now form one pastel-colored, brilliantly-marketed collective.

via Flickr user Mike Mozart

The Disney princess, too, has had to grow up along with her audience.  The early wait-for-my-prince-to-come archetypes of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty would no longer play well to modern audiences. Many parents object mightily to the  “damsel in distress” ideology and the notion that their daughters will expect a prince to save them. Today, Ariel risks her life to venture beyond her sheltered life “under the sea,” and Mulan impersonates a soldier in order to take down the entire Hun army and save China.

The very notion of “true love” also has changed immensely since Snow White first sang wistfully that “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Brave’s feisty Merida expertly fires arrows to claim the freedom to marry whom she wants; Frozen’s Queen Elsa coldly admonishes her love-struck sister that “You can’t marry someone you just met,” thereby giving a sly nod to the fairy tales of yesteryear where princesses did just that.  These allusions are not lost on the adults watching alongside their children; in fact, they serve as a sort of inside joke between the grown-ups on either side of the screen.

Of late, the evolution of the Princess also represents the classic coming of age story as Disney underscores contemporary themes of independence, strength, following your heart and not needing a man. The iconic “Let It Go” ballad where Elsa asserts her independence and rejects social and familial pressure to conform plays powerfully to both children and adults; the younger group learn a valuable lesson in being yourself while an older generation nods in rueful consensus. The idea of this “eternal princess” has allowed girls, and boys, to identify with the same evolving archetype throughout their lives. Disney doesn’t sell Princess t-shirts in adult sizes by accident.

The Art of Non-Animation

Noting animation’s popularity with both children and adults, the industry began to apply the strategy to other genres traditionally associated with children’s entertainment.

One of the most iconic not-just-for-children’s shows that has resurfaced in recent years is The Muppets.  Jim Henson’s live talking puppets first appeared on Sesame Street, which debuted in 1969. From the beginning, it was clear that this was not just another painfully

earnest show aimed only at children. Sly puns involving character names such as Alistair Cookie of “Monsterpiece Theater,” as well as laugh-out-loud parodies of contemporary adult entertainment like “Born to Add” performed by the muppet Bruce Stringbean or, more recently, an episode of “Law & Order: Special Letters Unit” could appeal to adults and children alike.

Henson’s Muppet empire continued with the more overtly adult-targeted The Muppet Show in 1976, followed by a string of related movies and features. Even after Henson’s death, the franchise continued for another decade. Muppet Treasure Island, a humorous take on the classic pirate adventure tale, saw Kermit and Miss Piggy’s reunited, yet facing some adult complications: Piggy has found another lover, explaining, “He was a pirate, I was a lady…. You know the story.” But would your five-year-old?

via Flickr user Michelle O'Connell

When Disney re-branded the Muppet franchise in 2008, Disney took this a step further and released Muppets Most Wanted, which even gave Team America a run for its more mature humor. With a boatload of celebrity cameos and scenes, such as an imprisoned Kermit trying to conceal an escape tunnel behind a black-and-white glamor poster of Miss Piggy (an overt nod to Tim Robbins’ character in The Shawshank Redemption who hid his tunnel behind a poster of Rita Hayworth), or when Animal launches into a 1970s John Bonham-style drum solo, Muppets Most Wanted solidified enough of an adult viewership to lead them to produce the new Muppets television series premiering this September on ABC.

The Power of Ponies

Notwithstanding the studios’ deliberate efforts to court the grown-ups, the industry was taken by surprise when a children’s show that was never intended to play to adults was widely embraced. Enter “the Brony,” a phrase started by an Internet meme to represent an adult fan, usually male, of the Hasbro television show, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, which debuted in 2010.

The show was originally targeted at girls aged 4 to 7, but as the show got bigger, so did its viewership. In 2011, The New York Times included Brony in its year-end list of “Which Words Will Live On?” Formed from “bro” and “pony,” the Brony has come to signify a young male adult who does not confine his idea of enjoyment to those things intended for men.

According to hercensus.com, there are more than seven million Bronies in the U.S and their 2013 Brony Herd Census, which surveys 21,000 adult fans, reported that 84% of fans are males, half of whom were between the ages of 15 and 30 and 65% of whom identified as heterosexual.

via Flickr user Mike Mozart

To say that the Bronies are die-hard fans of the show is a gross understatement. From proudly displaying their treasure troves of pony collectibles and stuffed animals online to scores of fan art, fiction and communities, the obsession is reminiscent of the Ty Beanie Baby craze in the late 1990s, and is even on track to surpass it in its longevity.

The fandom is almost uncanny. Capitalizing on its unexpected success in the adult community, the studio was quick to produce T-shirts, stuffed animals, posters, plastic figurines, buttons, bags, not to mention two spinoff movies, throwing  the Bronies into overdrive. An annual fan convention called BronyCon, for adults and teenage fans of the show, recently drew in over 9,600 attendees.

The Season Five premiere, which debuted this past April, did so with the highest-rated premiere ever for both the series and the Discovery Family network, becoming the top most co-viewed children’s cable network show in 2015 with kids ages 2 through 11 and adults ages 18 to 49.

Never Grow Up

Animation, and children’s programming in general, offers adults a cerebral way to experience something not generally available in real life, often with a happy ending to boot. The stories found in Frozen and My Little Pony as well as The Muppets’ shenanigans provide an escape from ordinary life. They invoke the nostalgias of childhood, of endless fun, of learning new challenges in life, of believing in magic. They re-instill lessons learned

and forgotten, such as what it means to be a true friend, that sometimes things don’t work out as you thought they would, and that love comes in many forms.

Adult viewership often remains relatively hidden due to modern society’s perception of appropriate life roles. It readily dismisses kids’ cartoons as “immature” or “fantasy,” while ignoring the fantastical nature of The Matrix, Star Wars and The Avengers, and arguably the less mature Dumb and Dumber, Airplane! and Monty Python. Even the horror genre, featuring behavior rampantly unacceptable in real life, suffers less adult ridicule than the more layered and lighthearted “kiddie” fare.   

Aside from Belle’s gorgeous gown and Rapunzel’s magic hair or Prince Charming’s chiseled jaw, these “children’s” characters teach all of us lessons we can live by in our daily lives. To the adults who still remember and cherish these characters, they’ve grown to be a part of their lives. Bugs Bunny may not be real in the physical sense, but has impacted our country and culture far more than most “real” characters ever did.

So for all the young at heart out there, embrace your inner child and keep calm and Brony on because everyone deserves their happily ever after.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images // C-SPAN

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