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.
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.
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
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