In Zootopia, Disney’s 55th animated feature, there’s a scene in which bunny cop Officer Judy Hopps and sly fox Nick Wilde find themselves in the lair of Mr. Big, an ironically-named tiny rodent whose persona and posse resemble Marlon Brando and his cohorts from The Godfather . The Zootopia animals’ encounter plays out much like the opening scene of the classic 1972 film, with Mr. Big making offers animals can't refuse, large goons standing by in a menacing way, and a doting daughter waiting for her father to dance with her on her wedding day. It’s a fun callback, but as I watched the film, surrounded by a handful of kids, I wondered what the little tykes, who presumably have never seen The Godfather, must have been thinking. Did any of them know what the throwback was a reference to? Will they, like I once did, see the Godfather references simply as fun one-liners and kooky mannerisms?
The inclusion of such mature movie references in a kid-centric film, as well as the general trend of putting adult-aimed jokes in PG-rated movies, confused me at first. Sure, it’s a way of keeping adults engaged and having a good time, but maybe there’s another angle behind it. Perhaps it’s actually a subtle and cool way to teach kids about classic films.
Including classic movie references in kids' films gives artists a chance to lovingly honor the works that have inspired them, yes, but it also helps introduce young folks to really great movies before it might be appropriate for them to see them. I was lucky enough to have a movie nerd of a dad who showed me a lot of classic stuff when I was a child, but for kids for whom an interest in old cinema might not be a readily available option, the references hidden in kid-appropriate entertainment have a major effect.
Cartoons, especially, do this well; when I was a kid, for instance, classic movie references consistently appeared in Steven Spielberg’s Animaniacs. The animated sketch comedy series memorably included a set of characters called the Goodfeathers, pigeons based on a combination of characters from The Godfather series and Goodfellas. As a child, I had never seen either of those, but the Godpigeons' way of speaking and overbearing authority were recognizable nonetheless, due to the same schtick appearing in other kids' shows and movies I had seen over the years. I was introduced to character tropes and important thematic elements of classics long before I was old enough to see them, and I believe that I was probably the richer for it, because I was then inspired to seek out the films of reference and learn more about the art form and the cinematic world than I otherwise would've.
If kids are intrigued by a reference to a classic movie in a cartoon, they might be inclined to learn more about where these shout-outs came from, and their parents might choose to expose them to new, important movies that'll help shape both their knowledge of film and their personal growth as children. It's a educational system disguised as entertainment, one that both kids and their parents can benefit from; the parents get to teach their kids life lessons and watch them learn, and the kids get to have exciting "grown-up" elements of the world exposed to them at an early age.
And it's great to see so many animated or kid-targeted movies including these types of fun, inspiring and educational references. Zootopia, for instance, isn’t the only animated film in recent memory to reference The Godfather; within the past 10 years alone, Bolt, Monsters Vs. Aliens, Despicable Me, The Lego Movie have all featured nods to the mob drama, and other classics, like Casablanca, have also shown up in a number of recent works. Perhaps no kid-centric studio's made it more of a mission to explore classic films in their movies than Pixar, who, as this mashup shows, has made reference to everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Psychoin its movies. For these studios, kids' movies aren't just about entertainment — they're about inspiration, teaching the next generation all about the values, themes, and classic movie lines they need to know.
Images: Disney, Warner Bros.