Family Movies: Eradicating the Fart Joke

The Lego Movie 2

Family movies nowadays seem to have become a niche all of their own. There’s serious money, artistic relevance and respect to be found in it. We know this from the many years that Disney and Pixar have curried favour with audiences through their exemplary output.

Yet, on the other hand we still family movies which don’t put in nearly as much effort. Usually they come in the flavour of live-action/CGI mash-up or from the Happy Madison Company or are ill-thought-out attempts at representing the nostalgia of the parents taking their children to these films. Any parent with children can tell you that they’re not always prime viewing, which makes the ones that actually are good all the more rewarding.

The inception for this article came after my viewing of The Lego Movie. In the months before its release it snuck up on my radar and the moment I read about it, I almost had Nam-style flashbacks to The Smurfs, Battleship and (crosses self) Michael Bay’s Transformers soon-to-be quadrilogy. That outlook changed, however, once I saw the trailers. The jokes were not fart-centred or about pratfalls or one-note, DOA gags about Lego itself. As a matter of fact, the jokes followed the rules of how realistic, actually-funny humour works – situational comedy, poking fun at characters’ shortcomings, quick visual gags, genuine wit, good timing and, vitally, very little pop culture humour. It seemed perfect not only for youngsters but also for the nostalgic adults that the studio was also hoping to entice.

Once I got around to finally seeing the movie, I can safely say that it’s a rousing success and puts the movies that I mentioned above to shame, for so many reasons.

First of all, I think I laughed for about 75% of the runtime – these were jokes that weren’t thrown in just for the sake of it, but worked in tandem with the kind of world that directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller had set up. For example, the citizens of Bricksburg watch a hit, one-note TV comedy called “Where Are My Pants?” so that they may be distracted from the fact that Lord Business is a pretty obvious tyrant. The pants-less punch line is automatic juvenile-humour gold but adults can also get a kick out of the sheer absurdity of it, how it completely takes the mickey out of a joke they’ve seen done to death and how, in its own over-the-top way, manages to reflect television trends in the real world.

But second of all, that wasn’t the only thing I got from it. It had mature themes, ideas and answers that you don’t often see in children’s movies, the kind that tend to only crop up in Pixar’s movies from the 2000s or Disney and DreamWorks’ more recent projects. We had a message that was much more in tune with Lego itself and revolved around something else that many children and adults alike value dearly – creativity and freedom of expression. The answers to the conflict were simple but also complex, involving compromise and putting someone else’s needs before your own or even changing your own hard-held beliefs.

All in all, it was the best movie-going experience I’ve had so far this year – and I’m not even in the target demographic. I’m neither a child nor a parent, yet in its opening weekend in the US 59% of tickets sold were to over 18s. Not bad at all for toy I used to make into houses for my Beanie Babies.

Family cinema

Once the experience was over, though, it made me think about other movies targeted towards a family audience. They have a big role to play in each week of new cinema releases. One week there’s an offering that’s viewed with admiration and as a bringer of joy and then, the very next week, there’s another one that’s regarded with disdain and thought of as an utter waste of time and energy. None of this really seems to really matter to the people charged with making them, so long as the margin of profit remains in balance. But why does this keep happening, year after year?

When it comes to the artistic forms of these movies, they have not changed much. A lot of films that I remember fondly from childhood, and still watch on occasion, seem to have been the genesis for how family movies are made these days – Home Alone founded the “amusing prank injuries and elaborate booby trap” types of jokes that in real life would probably leave someone with a traumatic brain haemorrhage; Who Framed Roger Rabbit was the original live-action/GGI hybrid while nowadays they’re everywhere; and animated films, first predominantly hand-drawn, now predominantly computer-animated, have been around for over 80 years. The thing that’s changed most dramatically is the content; there are the ones that set their mark on the standards deemed most suitable and most enticing for family entertainment and there are the ones that aim to try and score above those standards either through means of storytelling or artistic ambition.

There’s nothing wrong with having a select set of issues to explore in films aimed towards children – there are some that are too irrelevant or too horrifying for younger minds to grasp. The issue lies rather in the sameness of the messages put into children’s media and how ill-represented they are. Most often in children’s movies, I find that the messages often go along the lines of “love your family, even if sometimes you don’t get along”, “always follow your dreams”, “don’t sacrifice integrity for popularity” and so forth. None of these are bad messages by any means and have been successfully portrayed in several family movies (The Incredibles, The Little Mermaid, Mean Girls) but the way these messages seem to be thrown out like chump by film studios to the ravenous masses of young moviegoers makes them come across as extremely stale. In the poorest examples that immediately pop to mind, the story never devoted enough energy to making us love and care for characters in a way that would make their proclamations ring all the more true. When I think of why this is, I immediately think of misrepresentation – these are adult minds trying to recapture what they think a child’s world is all about, from familial and social standpoints, and failing due to oversimplifying what they think that encompasses.

Grown Ups 2d

Take an example from recent cinema – Grown Ups 2, an awful movie that had the audacity to claim it was about families and for families, when in reality it was a mandated sequel that stemmed from the original Grown Ups‘ unprecedented success.

Released to near-universal scorn, Grown Ups 2 feels like an (un-ironic) representation of what I stated just above – the trials and tribulations of young minds and lives as seen through the foggy lens of an adult’s eyes. Scatological humour, male-stupidity humour and amusing-injuries humour abounds as Sandler and Co go through the motions for that illusive pay check. Kids seemed to enjoy it enough, but it proved a head-splittingly painful experience for the accompanying parental figures, probably all the more so once they discovered the twenty dollars missing from their pocket in exchange for the “experience.”

The bile-choked reviews and bad worth-of-mouth and staggering 7% on Rotten Tomatoes did little to stop it from grossing $246,984,278 at the box office, which must have soothed any wounds the studio suffered over the movie being a complete failure in all other regards. The influx of green probably had something to do with brand recognition – people like Adam Sandler, people like to see suffering and humiliation onscreen and people can trust that it’ll get their children to sit quietly for a couple of hours.

Compare that to a film like The Lego Movie (which also relied on brand recognition) where the filmmakers obviously recognised the concept of cross-appeal and how childlike things can be given both immediate representation for younger audiences, but also fond reminiscence for the older audiences. As opposed to Grown Ups 2 and others of its ilk, you can feel the love and dedication behind every frame of The Lego Movie and not once does it feel like the kind of movie that exists just to “babysit” for an hour or so.

Yes, a bit of crude humour can be enjoyable for all ages. Yes, there’s a certain amount of schadenfreude to be obtained from immaturity and wish-fulfilment-style storytelling. But compared to greater, more valuable things that can be taken away from a movie-going experience, they hold little weight.

Contrary to whatever studio executives may believe, children enjoy the new and the unusual. They like seeing kindred spirits go through the same ordeals that they may go through and seeing them go through the same emotions and choices. They like discovering different ideologies, places, situations and solutions. There are thousands of unique ways to explore such subjects and thousands more ways to make them funny, sweet, sad, scary, awesome and everything else that make movies great and make them stick with us for the rest of our lives. They help us define who we are as people and what road we want to take in life. This is why cross-appeal is so crucial. A good movie that can be understood from ages 1 to 100 allows for discussion and growth and what better way for young minds to do that than with the people tasked with helping them grow up?

Plus, they’re the ones paying for it so, you know, it’d be nice for them to always get their money’s worth.

American currency falling
In the same vein, film studios are also tasked with helping along the intellectual and moral development of our youngsters and while in some areas they are succeeding admirably, in other areas they are failing both their audience and themselves.

To fix this problem, they need to stop putting on platter after platter of dumbed-down “hijinks.” They need to stop thinking that child’s entertainment automatically requires childish material. They need to stop giving children the same sorts of messages and give them something meatier to chew on.

We need more Toy Story‘s, more Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s, more Frozen‘s and less Alvin and the Chipmunks, less Furry Vengeance‘s and less The Cat in the Hat‘s. We need to banish the reputation that the fart-joke has given to family films. There’s no reason why these films cannot be good other than a focus on profit and lack of effort.

There will always be good and bad cinema no matter the genre or the age-group. But adults have much more choice and variety, whereas young children don’t really. It’s time to put aside overblown CGI, obnoxious voiceovers and deer-urine-in-the-face. It’s time to recapture the meaning of “fun for all ages.” It’s time to make sure we give the filmmakers of the future the best we can bestow.

And any film executive who disagrees can have a nice big whiff of my flatulence.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Gita Gass

    I’m very astonished as just how well Lego Movie is doing, both critically and commercially. I expected it to be a Rotten Tomatoes 60% at best, and I say this as a diehard Lego fan.

    That said, I’m not surprised it’s finding an adult audience, considering half of the references it makes.

    • If you’d ask me a while ago, I’d have said you could not make a film about lego.

    • I’ve heard and read great things about this movie. It’s a success for both young and old alike. However, some parents I’ve spoken to think some of the words in it aren’t appropriate for younger children. It also seems to fit an intermediate audience of the preteen age group – my younger sisters liked it and they’re 11 and 13.

    • Tigey

      And the park’s worse than the movie.

  2. I appreciate cheesy movies but Grown Ups sequel was disjointed and its plot was weak. I had to finish it though, because it is hard to turn your eyes away from a train wreck.

    • Adam Sandler is mystical. No matter how much crap he excredes unto the big screen, there will always be the mind numbing drone of, “But Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore made me laugh!” By that logic, M. Night Shamalyan could make crap movies the rest of his life and be forgiven since The Sixth Sense is 1000x better then anything Sandler has done (except maybe Punch Drunk Love and that was all Paul Thomas Anderson).

    • Headley

      I’m not the biggest fan of Grown Ups its cheap comedy no doubt, but I enjoy a movie like that every now and then, I saw the first one once and while I don’t ever wanna watch it again, I had some laughs with the guys and it was a decently entertaining film at the time.

      • Jennifer Carr

        Thank you all for reading. Well done for getting all the way through Grown Ups 2. I gave up about twenty minutes before the end.

  3. I think movie goers are stuck in the mindset of a “conform or die” mentality. If someone doesn’t like something, they expect everyone else to follow suit.

  4. Xuan Urbina

    I just cannot understand how these, self-obsessed Hollywood film makers and actors think the mass American public want to pay 8 bucks or waist 2 hours of their lives, watching something without any intellectual thought behind it.

    • Jennifer Carr

      Thanks for reading. My thought is, they don’t think, especially when it comes to sequels. If a movie does well, they don’t think “Okay, let’s develop a sequel idea and if it’s good, we’ll go ahead”, but think “Okay, first one made was a financial dream, now we’ve got to get the sequel out. We have till May two years from now. Go!” And thus, a lot of them are poorly thought out, obviously rushed and inferior to the first one. So I’m kind of sad that The Lego Movie’s getting this treatment. Oh well.

    • Jamie Tracy

      This is the problem when people with an unlimited income like Adam Sandler. Seth Rogen decide to spend their money. They call all of their friends and throw a script together and pay each other a boat load to hang out. What we the audience gets is a long fart joke or giggle-humor about boobs.

      • Nilson Thomas Carroll

        Eh, these movies are very popular, though. Obviously something like The Master has an unprecedented level of artistry and real worth, but there’s no law that everyone has to have “good taste” and prefer it over Grown Ups. I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel last night in a packed theater and it was great, but that doesn’t mean Seth Rogan shouldn’t do whatever he wants with his wealth and fame. Vote with your dollar.

  5. This is amazing! I totally agree with everything you have argued. People, children as well as adults, get more out of movies that are like Toy Story, Frozen, and The Lego Movie. While they provide a great plot line, they also provide great comic relief as well as a great moral to the story by putting it in a very mature way. I thoroughly enjoyed this article; well done!

  6. I recently saw The Lego Movie, and I would say that it was surprisingly rich. I was expecting another “Alvin and The Chipmunks” style film, until I saw the trailers. Even then, I questioned on how one could ever make a movie about Legos, and am thoroughly impressed with the filmmakers final product. I was lost in the Lego world – it was a movie adventure really, with unique animations and action-packed moments. They took a “children’s” toy and made it relevant to life – which is pretty cool.
    Overall, a great article that I totally agree with!

  7. Jamie Tracy

    The creatives in charge of all Lego content have it under control. They have developed a great core base of writers and are carrying the humor and flavor across all mediums and all intellectual properties.

    The video games are the most entertaining games I have played in years. The conversations and gestures of the characters are downright hilarious at times and can keep, my 8 year old, my 11 year old and myself engaged for extended periods of times.

    • Jennifer Carr

      Thanks for reading. I’ve never played any of the Lego video games, but it’s good that they’re really invested in making it of high quality rather than just having money on the brain.

  8. It seems as though some family films don’t understand children, or underestimate the intelligence of children. Slapstick comedy and fart jokes are simple and easy and yes, children may laugh at them, but they can also appreciate clever jokes and a complex plot. Although darker themes should be saved for audiences above 10, I think bigger themes can also be addressed in family films.
    I haven’t seen the LEGO movie, but I’m pretty pumped to see it now.

    • Jennifer Carr

      Thanks for reading. I think you’ll really enjoy it, I walked out of the theater in a great mood. I think families these days are a bit more savvy when it comes to knowing which movies will be good and which ones are obvious rubbish. But then again, the Smurfs made a lot of money, so, not quite there yet.

  9. I agree whole heartedly. I write stand up comedy and perform locally at my college. The one thing that an audience hates is a fart joke. Yes it gets cheap laughs but it’s crude humor. There’s nothing intellectually stimulating at all. It’s just an embarrassing part of life and we all know it, so why continue passing it in our faces?

  10. Miranda Campbell

    I’m a film major so I always enjoy articles that discuss the opinions of past, present, and future cinema. Plus, as you stated in the article, as a potential future filmmaker, it is nice to know what the people want! I have not seen the Lego movie, and quite honestly didn’t have a huge interest to see it (until now). But I have to agree with you in that I definitely enjoy movies like Toy Story or Despicable Me even, over something like Grown Ups. I never considered the thought that adults are the ones trying to pinpoint what weighs heavy in a child’s world and that they are getting it all wrong due to “over simplifying.” Interesting article!

    • Jennifer Carr

      Thank you! Personally I felt the Lego Movie got it right in terms of mixing childhood nostalgia and an adult’s take on it, mostly because the directors and lots of adults love Lego too. The frustrating thing is they could probably do the same for all these other nostalgia cash-in movies like Scooby-Doo and Transformers, but they’re just obvious cash-cows and the lack of effort and interest shows.

  11. Great article! I think Warner Bros. hit the jackpot with this one- budget of $60 million with a box office of $391 million. But those numbers don’t matter as much as the content like you said with Grown Ups 2. The Lego Movie is a great wake up call to other studios who are just churning out movies as fast as they can with little effort. I couldn’t believe when I saw a trailer for Disney’s Airplanes. Seriously? Cars was great, Cars 2 was okay, but now just substituting cars for Airplanes and expecting it to be a hit is pushing it.

    The article mentioned Frozen, a movie that I really enjoyed, and in my opinion, it was a success partly because it reminded me of a lot of the classic princess stories we are all used to from Disney. But I want to see more movies like Wall-E, Ratatouille and Up. I think this new Lego Movie shows the studios cannot try to sell movies just because of the studio’s name anymore.

    Movies aside, I think this is a great opportunity for Lego’s attempt at a comeback with the children, Lego’s were probably the most beneficial toy I had when I was growing up ad it’s a shame to see kids 4 years old or even younger staring at a smartphone or tablet. Now children aren’t going to suddenly put these electronics down and play with Legos so maybe they can create an app that lets you pick the pieces you want to build something. Sell expansion packs with different pieces and now you have a Lego market in hand held electronics. Just a thought, way off topic

    • Jennifer Carr

      Thank you for reading, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Please do watch WALL-E, Up and Ratatouille, they’re terrific. I hope Lego makes a comeback too, because it was a big part of my childhood. Nothing beats making your own creations.

  12. Your analysis was awesome and your delivery of it was intelligent and readable. I loved it! Especially this line: “They need to stop thinking that child’s entertainment automatically requires childish material.” Awesome stuff!

  13. samcel

    I agree with you for the most part. I wish all family movies could be as great as Frozen, Home Alone, or Up. However, I agree with some of the other people that said they enjoy a stupid movie every once in a while. Was Grown Ups 2 an Oscar-winning master piece? Absolutely not. And I don’t think Adam Sandler thinks it is either. I believe he produced this movie because that’s what he loves to do, and I think that it shows in the movie that he and everyone else involved had fun. I got plenty of laughs out of Grown Ups2… even though it was not exactly smart humor. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I think there are worse movies that you could have used as an example, but maybe I’m just being soft because I love Adam Sandler since I grew up with his movies. And even though I don’t necessarily agree with everything you said, you do have a strong argument and good writing.

    • Jennifer Carr

      Thank you for reading. And you’re right, at least Adam Sandler’s having fun doing what he’s doing. Not a lot of people can say that about their job.

  14. Jennifer, I enjoyed reading your article because I’ve often wondered why movies rely so heavy on ‘fart’ jokes. Movies that rely on that particular brand of humor seemed to be intentionally dumbed down, although you would think such a thing would be impossible. When movies are full of those types of jokes or gags, I can’t help feel that people involved in making the movie have a low opinion of the intelligence of the audience. I have two sons, and even as children, they always preferred a more subtle humor. That’s not to say that as young boys they couldn’t appreciate a good fart joke, but my sons would get bored with that type of humor pretty quickly. I look forward to reading any further articles by you.

    • Jennifer Carr

      Thank you very much! Your sons are obviously living proof that kids are smarter than film executives give them credit for. Here’s hoping we get more and more sophisticated fare in the future.

  15. This was completely spot on! The multi-layered family films always seem to do better critically and in the box office as well. I think there’s a pressure in the studio to solicit family movie more to the young boys and girls than to the family as a whole. I haven’t seen the Lego movie, but other ones that you mentioned cater to the family as a whole respecting the parents and children alike and catering to their needs. It’s nice to see more films focusing on enjoyment for everyone rather than embracing crassness and limited jokes.

    • Jennifer Carr

      Thank you for reading. I think the studios are just in a hurry to get them out so they can make up the deficit and who really cares if it’s good or not.

  16. I saw the Lego Movie simply because of all the hype it got. I must say, it led me to believe that this movie would be the greatest thing I had ever seen. Everybody was raving about it. Now as a fan of Disney Pixar movies, I was expecting something more along those lines, and I was a bit disappointed with the movie. I understand that many people loved it, and I can see why. It was very upbeat, had a catchy song attached and appealed to all ages. I was looking for more emotional connection with the audience though. In the theater it was mostly the parents and teenagers laughing, while the kids laughed at the physical humor. The jokes were a bit cliche and while the movie was playful, it was no WALL-E or Finding Nemo. The Lego Movie to me just seemed “fun”, which can sometimes also feel flat.

    • Jennifer Carr

      Thank you for reading. I loved the movie, but can understand why it might’ve fallen flat for others. Back in 2010 everyone was raving about Black Swan and I thought it was just okay but very weird (Natalie Portman was incredible, though)

  17. The real problem here is that modern audiences have fallen out of touch with the more subtle nuances of physical comedy. A guy like Brendan Fraser has the acting capability to create humor with his body movements and his facial reactions to scenarios around him, yet he is often regarded with scorn by the majority of people out there. Why? Because people’s expectations for comedy have changed to fast, witty, and often raunchy dialogue. Thus, when you get a Fraser or Sandler movie, the movies throw in flatulence and effects of the like in order to scrounge up what few laughs they can. The actors themselves can not be held entirely to blame.

    • Jennifer Carr

      Thanks for reading. My personal opinion is that every actor is capable of giving a good performance as long as they get the right material. Sadly, Hollywood is kind of 50/50 in that regard and some actors just keep getting typecast because their agents can’t be bothered looking for better projects. I’d like to see Adam Sandler and Brendan Fraser do something really meaty. And “George of the Jungle” is still as funny to me now as it was when I was eight.

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