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					 Animated Family Comedies: Humor for            Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi
             Everyone?                          (1942), and Cinderella (1950).
                                                        Characters in these early movies are
            by Rebecca Oehler                   one-dimensional and simplistic. They are
                                                developed just enough to make the plot
        Heroes and villains. Princes and        work and to interest children viewers. In
princesses. Castles and kingdoms. Dragons       Snow White, for instance, the title character
and fairies.         Witches and wizards.                               reflects very few
Magicians and sorcerers. Songs and lessons.                             personality       traits
Animals that talk and animals that don’t talk                           other than those
but seem awfully human. Once upon a time                                which the conflicts
and happily ever after.                                                 and plot dictate she
        Pick any animated family comedy,                                absolutely        must
old or new, and chances are you’ll encounter                            have. The audience
many, if not most, of these elements. So                                is given little insight
what makes Snow White and the Seven             into Snow White’s background, experiences,
Dwarfs (1937) different from Robin Hood         thoughts, and emotions. Rather, she exists
(1973), Robin Hood different from Aladdin       as part of the story as a whole, not as a
(1992), and Aladdin different from Shrek        unique and interesting individual in herself.
(2001)?                                         Of course, these characters, like Snow
        Over the past decades, many aspects     White, are without exception beautiful or
of animated family comedies have                cute, attractive to children in some way;
undergone an evolution. Of course, early        their physical appearances, though, don’t
movies like Snow White and Pinocchio            make up for their lack of depth.
(1940) have always been classics for                    Like the characters, the conflicts are
children, but more recent movies like Shrek     also basic and unsophisticated. The lines
and Finding Nemo (2003) are still able to       between good and evil are clear, and of
captivate a younger audience. The key           course, good always triumphs in the end. In
difference is that while older animated         Bambi, the plot centers on a young deer who
movies aimed their material strictly at         must find a way to survive his adolescence
children, as time passed, animated family       and become an adult after his mother dies.
comedies focused more and more on living        Ultimately, he has to save all the other
up to their title: family comedies. The         animals from humans and a forest fire.
inclusion of developed characters, situations   Throughout the movie, Bambi isn’t forced to
to which adults can relate, and mature          make too many difficult decisions, weigh
humor, while still maintaining elements         the consequences, or fight an internal battle.
attractive to children, have made this change           If we’re sticking with a theme of
successful.                                     simplicity, we must mention the songs in
                                                these early animated films. Snow White’s
Disney Beginnings: Poisoned Apples and          most memorable songs may be the cute and
a Talking Puppet                                catchy melodies of “Whistle While You
                                                Work” and “Heigh Ho.” Bambi features the
        In 1937, Disney released the first      cheerful tune of “Little April Shower,” as
full-length animated feature film, Snow         well     as    the    innocently      amorous
White and the Seven Dwarfs. Quickly             “Twitterpated.” And let’s not forget the
following were other soon-to-be classics like   silly, nonsensical lyrics of “Bibbidi-

Bobbidi-Boo” in Cinderella. These songs          by hunters, children quite understandably
are melodious and pleasant; their words are      need to be reminded that good things can
easy for children to remember and fun for        happen too!
them to sing. However, although adults may               Much of the humor in early animated
smile upon hearing one of these tunes, it’s      movies comes from adorable and amusing
reasonable to assume that few adults would       sidekicks and friends. Snow White has the
find any song in an early animated family        dwarfs and the animals in the forest;
movie uproariously funny.                        Pinocchio has Jiminy Cricket, Figaro the cat,
        Themes and morals in early               and Cleo the goldfish. Dumbo is befriended
animated family films are clearly presented.     by Timothy Q. Mouse, Bambi meets
After viewing one of these movies, most          Thumper, and Cinderella has Jacques and
children have a strong grasp of what the         Gus, her rodent companions. Each of these
lesson was that they were supposed to learn:     sidekick characters reminds the main
be nice, share with others, your friends and     character (and the audience) to look on the
family are important, just because someone       bright side and remember that circumstances
is different doesn’t mean they’re bad, and       always improve. Children are amused and
dreams and wishes can come true (and let’s       tickled by talking, human-like animals and
not forget that someday your prince will         laugh at silly names and funny voices. Each
come). In a study of families and couples in     of these sidekicks is somehow unique in an
Disney animated films, it was noted that         entertaining way; in Bambi, for example,
family relationships are a “strong priority”     Thumper gets his name because he cannot
and that although “families are diverse…the      keep one of his feet from thumping against
diversity is often simplified” (Tanner et al.    the ground.
355). A second study, in which data came                 Adults would probably watch an
from sources including questionnaires and        early animated movie for one of two
student focus group, found determined that       reasons: because their children wanted to
the themes of “love and romance, marriage        watch it, or to nostalgically remember their
and family, and lessons and morality, [are]      own childhoods. Although these films do an
elements that should always be included in       excellent job of capturing and maintaining
Disney animated films.” It’s important that      the interest of children, they simply aren’t
children learn each of these principles,         the type of movie adults prefer.
through a variety of sources, so that they can
be happy and successful in life. And while        Moving Forward: Kids Love Animals!
the majority of the burden of teaching
children good values should fall on family,              Throughout the 1950s, animated
friends, and teachers, it certainly doesn’t      family movies followed a trend similar to
hurt to hear them from a loveable Disney         the earliest films produced by Disney. From
character too.                                   magical worlds in Alice in Wonderland
        Humorous moments in these films          (1951) and Peter Pan (1953) to additional
are included as much for the sake of             “some day my prince will come” stories like
relieving the tension of the scarier moments     Sleeping Beauty (1959), animated movies
as for their value as humor. After seeing the    continued to focus their efforts on appealing
evil queen plotting against Snow White,          to young audiences.
Pinocchio captured and caged by Stromboli,               In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Disney
Dumbo ridiculed and his mother locked            mastered the art of exploiting a successful
away, and Bambi’s mother shot and killed         element present in some of their earliest

movies: animal characters.          The most      but simple characters, easily-understood
popular movies released in these two              conflicts, cute and catchy songs, clear
decades, with few exceptions, feature             lessons, and cuddly animals were combined
animals either as main characters or in the       to create films that held so much appeal for
majority of the supporting roles. Included in     a young audience that they are still watched
this time period are 101 Dalmatians (1961),       by children today. So what next?
The Jungle Book (1967), The Aristocats                    Logically, the next step was to
(1970), Robin Hood (1973), The Rescuers           branch out in an attempt to attract a more
(1977), and The Fox and the Hound (1981).         varied audience while still meeting the
What child can resist giggling at the             expectations of children. In the early 1990s,
amusing antics of a pack of spotted               Disney released two movies                 that
Dalmatian puppies, or the daring efforts of a     accomplished this goal exceptionally well:
pair of heroic mice in The Rescuers?              Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994).
        Interestingly, every character in         While these films were clearly still aimed at
Disney’s version of Robin Hood was                younger viewers rather than adults, they
portrayed as an animal: Robin Hood as a           began to incorporate some of the elements
                             fox, Little John     that would make future movies so popular
                             as a bear, and       with all audiences, such as character
                             Prince John as a     development, more complex conflicts, and
                             lion,      among     characters and scenes aimed at making the
                             others.       The    audience laugh.
                             Disney writers               Aladdin portrays, for the first time, a
                             and producers        multi-faceted, developed character.         As
                             had discovered       author and literature professor Ian Wojcik-
                             that      animals    Andrews writes, “Aladdin is clearly meant
                             make children        to be a more rounded character” than the
                             laugh and keep       others. Wojcik-Andrews goes on to explain
the atmosphere of a movie more light-             that Aladdin is portrayed in a variety of
hearted and relaxed. Of course, these             situations, which allows the audience to see
animal characters don’t offer the same level      his many dimensions: romance, cleverness,
of amusement for adults, but Disney’s             idealism, realism, bravery, and humanism.
animal-related       movies        nonetheless    Of course, we must remember that although
succeeded in attracting young viewers and         Aladdin is clearly multi-faceted, the other
becoming immensely popular.                       characters have not succeeded in being so
        In later years, Disney films also         complex. Wojcik-Andrews points out that
began to incorporate “objects with their own      Jasmine’s father, the Sultan, is still “mostly
identity or personality,” such as the furniture   mindless” and describes him as a
and household objects personified in Beauty       “dimwitted, over-protective buffoon [whose]
and the Beast (1989) (Wells 163).                 primary narrative function is to make
                                                  possible the marriage of Aladdin and
   The Early ‘90s: Important Changes              Jasmine” (174). But although many of the
                                                  characters remain undeveloped, Aladdin’s
       We’ve seen that Disney had created         complexity is certainly a critical change.
and established an effective formula for                  Like some of the characters, conflicts
producing animated family movies that were        also increase in complexity in the animated
well-received by young children. Loveable         family comedies of the early nineties.

Contrary to the malicious-villain-versus-        delivering funny jokes, though, but rather
virtuous-hero conflicts of earlier movies,       his impressions and shape-changing
Aladdin and The Lion King develop internal       abilities. Throughout the movie, he appears
conflicts within the main characters.            in a wide variety of forms, including Robert
Aladdin, a “street rat,” meets and falls in      De Niro, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack
love with Princess Jasmine when she sneaks       Nicholson, and Groucho Marx. While kids
out of the palace. But since she can only        just think it’s funny that the Genie changes
marry a prince, Aladdin later disguises          shape so many times, adults can recognize
himself as Prince Ali Ababwa and courts          the shapes he assumes. Less recognized for
her. At various points during the movie,         his comedy but still important is Iago, the
Jasmine questions Aladdin as to whether he       villain Jafar’s talking parrot. Iago delivers
really is who he claims to be. Aladdin must      stinging sarcasm and witty commentary,
ultimately decide whether he should              referring even to his own master as “Your
continue to lie to the princess, and thus be     Rottenness,” “Oh Mighty Evil One,” and
able to marry her, or tell her the truth about   “Sultan Vile Betrayer.”
who he really is and risk losing her love.                In The Lion King, comedy is, of
Simba in The Lion King also faces an             course, provided by Simba’s jungle friends,
internal battle between right and wrong.         Timon and Pumbaa. This pair engages in
After his evil uncle Scar blames Simba for       activities such as commenting on one
his father’s death and Simba runs away, he       another’s flatulence and eating bugs. While
grows up in the jungle learning “Hakuna          Timon describes the bugs as tasting like
Matata,” or “no worries.” In the meantime,       chicken, Pumbaa says, “Slimy…yet
Scar becomes ruler of the kingdom.               satisfying.” The two sidekicks engage in a
Eventually, Simba needs to choose whether        fair amount of slapstick humor. Timon and
to stay in the jungle and continue his           Pumbaa constantly misunderstand each
carefree life, or return to his father’s         other’s lines or what other characters say to
kingdom, defeat the wicked Scar, and             them. Their simple, bumbling, sometimes
reassert himself as the king. For both           stupid attitudes and behaviors earn laughs
Aladdin and Simba, their choices come            from young as well as older children.
down to deciding what is right, not what will             The songs in these movies also
benefit them the most.                           contain humor. Some adults may catch the
        Finally, in these films, we see the      lines in “Arabian Nights,” the opening song
addition of humor intended to make the           of Aladdin, when the merchant sings
audience laugh, not merely to amuse              “Arabian nights / Like Arabian days / More
viewers or give them relief from frightening     often than not / Are hotter than hot / In a lot
scenes. Humor is added mainly through            of good ways.” This line is quite clearly
comedic characters, and to a lesser extent       meant for the amusement of the adults in the
through music.                                   audience, not the children. Aladdin also
        The most obvious comedic character       includes catchy songs like “One Jump
in Aladdin is the Genie. Voiced by popular       Ahead” and “Friend Like Me.” In “Hakuna
comedian Robin Williams, how can the             Matata” in The Lion King, the bodily
Genie not be funny?           He keeps the       function and flatulence jokes continue with
enthusiasm, energy, and slight sarcasm           references to Pumbaa after a meal. Children
coming one line after another and speaks the     and adults alike remember the upbeat “I Just
vast majority of the humorous lines in the       Can’t Wait to Be King” and the somewhat
movie.       The Genie’s specialty isn’t

strange lyrics of Rafiki’s “I’ve Got a Lovely      as external. In Toy Story 2, for example,
Bunch of Coconuts.”                                Woody is forced to decide between his old
        So the animated family comedies of         friends, Andy, and being a “regular” toy,
the early ‘90s finally succeeded in adding         and his new friends, fame, and fortune. In
humor and other aspects that appealed to an        Shrek, Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey are all
audience of more than just children. At this       shown to have a variety of characteristics;
point, though, we have yet to see an               they are portrayed as tough but gentle, brave
animated family comedy completely living           but not foolhardy, and somewhat
up to its title and offering real attraction for   unattractive but still loveable. Marlin and
adults too.                                        Nemo in Finding Nemo are perhaps the most
                                                   complex characters of any of these movies.
  The Last Ten Years: True Comedy at               The audience is allowed insight into their
                 Last!                             emotions, thoughts, hopes, and worries, and
                                                   is able to see how the characters are affected
        The release of Toy Story (a Pixar          by their actions and experiences.
film) in 1995 signified the beginning of a                  In Toy Story and Toy Story 2, adults
series of animated family comedies that            are watch situations on-screen with which
attempted to appeal to an adult audience in        they can identify. Perhaps they experienced
addition to the traditional audience of            the same thing in the past, or maybe they
children. Toy Story and the following films        know it will happen to them in the future.
(Toy Story 2 [1999], Shrek [2001], Finding         Toy Story happens during the time when
Nemo [2003], and Shrek 2 [2004]) used a            space travel was achieved and became a
variety of methods to attract adults,              much more prevalent idea in society. The
including voicing by popular actors;               addition of Buzz Lightyear to Andy’s toy
developed,      complex     characters   and       collection is only one of the manifestations
conflicts; scenes and situations to which          of space travel in everyday life. Adults can
adults can relate; and mature humor.               remember when the first human walked on
        Since our culture is purported to          the moon, and all the technological advances
admire and even idolize actors and actresses,      since. Toy Story 2 raises the issue of how to
if our favorite actor is doing the voice of a      decide between sticking with your friends,
character in an animated movie, why                family, and the life you have already, and
shouldn’t we see that movie just like we           sacrificing something you love to possibly
would any other? Certainly “big” names             gain fame, fortune, and a different life that
can attract audiences to animated family           might make you happy too.
comedies. The main characters in Toy Story                  Finding Nemo contains even more
are voiced by actors Tim Allen and Tom             adult and “real-life” situations than the
Hanks, with the addition of Joan Cusack in         previously discussed movies. Like Marlin,
Toy Story 2. Ellen DeGeneres is the voice          Nemo’s father, any parent can relate to the
of Dory in Finding Nemo. Shrek boasts              fear of losing his child to accident, illness, or
Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, and Cameron              some other unforeseen horror. Parents also
Diaz as the main voices; Shrek 2 adds Julie        struggle to determine when they should let
Andrews and Antonio Banderas.                      their children go, and when their children
        The characters in the most recent          are ready to face the world on their own.
animated family comedies are more                  Adults can relate to the humor (or lack
complex and multi-dimensional than ever            thereof) in Dory’s short-term memory loss;
before. They face as many internal conflicts       after all, quite a few adults find their friends,

their parents, or even themselves                 also contains numerous references to Luke
experiencing this problem.          Soon after    and Darth Vader in Star Wars.
Nemo disappears, Dory and Nemo end up at                  Shrek delivers plenty of one-liners
a gathering of sharks that quite resembles a      and other jokes for the adult audience to
meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous: each             appreciate.     When the dwarfs place a
                              shark states his    comatose Snow White on his kitchen table,
                              name and how        Shrek exclaims, “Dead broad off the table!”
                              long it has been    Another reference is made to Snow White
                              since he ate a      when the Magic Mirror says, “Although she
                              fish.    Finally,   lives with seven other men, she’s not easy.”
                              many of the         Soon after Shrek rescues Fiona from the
                              women in the        dragon, she asks where he’s going and he
audience know exactly how Dory feels              says, “Well, I have to save my ass”
when, upon finding Marlin and herself lost,       (referring to Donkey). Upon seeing Lord
she asks rhetorically, “What is it with men       Farquaad’s castle for the first time, Shrek
and asking for directions?”                       comments, “Do you think he’s maybe
        Finally, perhaps the most noticeable      compensating for something?”            These
change from earlier animated family films to      mature jokes are cleverly slipped in among
the most recent animated comedies is the          more basic or slapstick humor that maintains
inclusion of humorous lines that are clearly      the focus of the children.
intended to fly straight over the heads of the            The humor in Finding Nemo is less
children in the audience. These adult jokes       directed strictly at adults or children and is
are evident in each of the five recent            more focused on making all audiences
animated family comedies we’ve discussed.         laugh. On Nemo’s first day of school, he
        Toy Story’s humor is perhaps a bit        meets a young octopus who, upon being
less “adult” than that of the other movies,       frightened, exclaims, “Hey, you guys made
but this film still includes quite a few jokes    me ink!” The punch line of one of Marlin’s
that aren’t aimed at the children. After          jokes is “With fronds like these, who needs
Woody makes disparaging remarks about             anemones?” When Marlin explains to the
Buzz’s laser, Mr. Potato Head dismisses it        sharks that Nemo was taken by divers, one
as “laser envy.” Rex, a green dinosaur, says,     shark says, “Humans. Think they own
“I’m from Mattel. Well, actually I’m from a       everything,” and the other replies, “Probably
smaller company that was purchased by             American.”       Upon his arrival in the
Mattel in a leveraged buyout”; it’s safe to       aquarium, Nemo is introduced to all of the
assume that none of the children watching         other fish; several say they’re from pet
understand this reference, although adults        stores but one says he’s from Ebay. Gill,
may be amused by it.                              one of the aquarium fish, describes a
        Toy Story 2 continues with additional     horribly complicated and seemingly risky
adult jokes. At the toy store, the beautiful      plan, then says “It’s foolproof!” And all
and stunningly proportioned Tour Guide            audiences can be amused by the “surfer”
Barbie introduces herself, and Mr. Potato         turtles who help Marlin and Dory find
Head frantically repeats under his breath,        Sydney.
“I’m a married spud. I’m a married spud.”                 Shrek 2 continues to offer adults
Buzz refers to Hamm (a piggy bank) as a           humor they can appreciate. Children don’t
“slotted pig.” Toward the end, the movie          understand the irony of a kingdom actually
                                                  called Far Far Away. On one occasion,

Donkey is asked “Why the long face?”               to children than to adults. The Wall Street
When Shrek and Donkey catch Puss-in-               Journal’s analysis of sales showed that
boots, a feline assassin sent after them,          Shrek 2 had the second-highest debut ever,
Shrek says, “Let’s neuter him right now!           which also proves that Shrek 2 and similar
                        Give him the Bob           movies are in fact very popular (Marr B.4).
                        Barker     treatment!”             So the problem isn’t that children
                        During a different         aren’t attracted to complex characters,
                        scene, Shrek and           conflicts, and situations, but rather that
                        Donkey need to use         adults are often bored by the simplicity of
                        Pinocchio’s nose for       older animated family comedies. Of course,
                        something, but it’s        there’s nothing “wrong” with these older
                        not long enough, so        movies; in fact, for many young families
                        Donkey             tells   these movies comprise most of their home
                        Pinocchio to tell a lie,   video collection. But the fact remains that
                        that he’s wearing          older animated “family” comedies simply
ladies underwear. Pinocchio says that he is,       haven’t lived up to their title until the last
but his nose stays the same. Children don’t        decade. Newer family movies like Toy
understand the irony, references, or               Story, Shrek, and Finding Nemo offer a
implications of these jokes, but adults            refreshing cinema experience for the parents
certainly do. Shrek 2’s director, Kelly            of young children, as well as other adults
Asbury, said in an interview, “The                 who watch the movies strictly for their
characters are so engaging. The subject            reputation for mature humor and content.
matter is fun….It’s a satirical world, but you     Through the infusion of adult humor, the
believe the characters” (Epstein). It is           addition of characters with greater depth and
certainly a combination of these elements, in      more variety, and the increasing portrayal of
each of the newer animated family                  more adult and real-life situations, animated
comedies, that makes them so successful.           “family” comedies of recent years have
        Some critics might claim that by           finally succeeded in capturing the attention
adding so many elements designed to appeal         of the entire family.
to adults, the producers of these newer
animated movies have omitted the elements                          Works Cited
that make them attractive to children. But
how can you argue that Toy Story, a movie          Cokely, Carrie Lynn. “Discovering the
whose main characters are toys, isn’t                    Magic: Readings, Interpretations,
appropriate or appealing for an audience of              and Analyses of the Wonderful
children? Similarly, Shrek is, at heart, a               Worlds of Disney.” Diss. Syracuse
story of princes, princesses, castles,                   U, 2002.
kingdoms, and dragons, all the elements that
made those older fairy tales so popular. And       Epstein, Daniel Robert. Interview with Kelly
let’s not forget that Finding Nemo is based               Asbury. Underground Online. 2004.
almost solely on animal characters, a                     30 Sept. 2004 <
strategy which, as we’ve seen, led to the                 channels/filmtv/features/kelly
success of many older Disney films. So it’s               asbury/>.
reasonable to say that the inclusion of adult
elements has not detracted from the fact that      Marr, Merissa. “‘Shrek 2’ Scores at Box
these films are still designed to appeal more             Office; DreamWorks’ Ogre Sequel

      Collects $104.3 Million In U.S. Sales
      Over Weekend.” Wall Street Journal
      24 May 2004: B.4.

Tanner, Litsa Renée, et al. “Images of
       Couples and Families in Disney
       Feature-Length Animated Films.”
       American Journal of Family Therapy
       Oct. 2003: 355-374.

Wells, Paul. Understanding Animation. New
       York: Routledge, 1993.

Wojcik-Andrews, Ian. Children’s Films:
      History, Ideology, Pedagogy,
      Theory. New York: Garland
      Publishing, 2000.

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