Making Children’s Movies Appeal to Adults Part One: Allusions

Watching a movie written for kids only can be awful as an adult. Let’s face it – a movie doesn’t have to have great writing or characters to entertain children. If you re-watch a series you loved as a child, there’s a good chance you’re going to be seriously disappointed. Similarly, if you have kids or are babysitting and get stuck watching a movie designed for children, there are some movies you’d really rather not watch (Oh, no! I can’t find that one anywhere!).

Of course, as clever adults, we can figure out a way around that, right?

Some movies and tv shows are written to entertain adults as well as children. Honestly, that tactic is what has made film companies like Disney and Pixar so successful. They pick plots that are complicated enough to appeal to all ages, follow through with their characterization (generally), and combine graphics with music and language to broaden their audience. Two of the main ways they add adult meaning is through allusions and double meaning.


Allusions can be added with a single word, a phrase, or even a situation. Children are unlikely to understand and recognize them simply because children have fewer experiences: they know less about history, literature, etc. But since the references don’t detract from the scene or dialogue, the kids can understand what’s happening without recognizing the allusion at all.

Phoebus: Achilles, sit. [The horse sits on a soldier’s head.]
Phoebus: [As he is walking away with the horse beside him] Achilles, heel.

These two quotes are from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. What kids see is a horse that obeys commands like a dog would (sit, heel, etc.) and that it sat on a person’s head (hahahaha). Adults see the same thing, but they also get the reference to the ancient warrior (Achilles’ heel). The reference is so well worked in that it’s completely unobtrusive unless you get it, and if you do, it adds an extra dash of humor to the moment.

Picking the right allusions to use is key to making them successful. The ultimate goal is to pick one that fits the specific situation of a scene so that if someone doesn’t recognize the allusion, the scene will still make sense. For example, in Disney’s Hercules, Phil is crossing a bustling street when a chariot almost hits him. As a result, he shouts, “Hey, I’m walking here!” The scene makes perfect sense on its own. If you’ve seen Midnight Cowboy or looked up the origin of the quote, however, the way Hercules parallels the scene from the other movie becomes obvious. That’s pretty clearly aimed at adults since Midnight Cowboy is rated R, and it’s also clear that the entire scene was designed around making that reference. The writers had the freedom to do that because the main purpose of the scene was to communicate the chaotic nature of the “big, tough town” to both Hercules and the audience. Referencing another work did that without getting in the way of the plot.

Actually, Hercules is full of allusions. That’s partly due to its subject matter. Although it’s not very true to the original myths as far as the plot and some characterization, it does make plenty of classical references to the gods and different stories (“And then that play, that… Oedipus thing… Man, I thought I had problems.” In Thebes, no less.). What makes it more interesting is that it mixes in modern allusions like the one earlier, too. For example, they have somebody selling sun dials on the street (instead of watches) and another street guy saying,”The end is coming!” They call Hercules a “chariot chaser” in stead of “ambulance chaser,” and a kid yells for someone to call “IX-I-I.” Changing the modern references to make them fit the period of the story is humorous but also makes for interesting worldbuilding.

Other movies use varying amounts of this technique. In Finding Nemo, Dory commonly forgets Nemo’s name and replaces it with something else such as two very different allusions – Elmo and Fabio. Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin makes all sorts of references through his comments and imitations (both visually and aurally). Another Robin Williams’ character, Fender gets to reference both Braveheart and Brittany Spears in the same battle in Robots (a dubious yet amusing accomplishment).

None of these references are vital to the plot. Their sole purpose is to add humor that is adult-friendly so that the movie becomes a family film rather than pure torture for the adults forced to watch it.


  1. […] Taboo topics (of today) are taken out or glossed over. Either it’s not in there, or it’s added through innuendo for the adults. […]

  2. […] neologism of puzzle pieces. Its sly inferences make it the perfect word for what it is. Like an innuendo that isn’t as dirty as you expect that becomes a kind of inside […]

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