As a result, the marketing campaigns for pop culture-laden children's films tend to be strangely adult in tone, with notable examples including The Smurfs (tagline: "Where the Smurf are we?") and Shrek: Forever After (taglines: "Where my witches at?" and "What the Shrek just
happened?"). The Muppets is a much, much stronger film than either of those (it currently holds a rare 100 percent approval rating at Rotten
Tomatoes, ahead of Hugo's 96 percent), but it has similarly relied on adult-oriented advertising in the months leading up to its release. Disney's
campaign for The Muppets included spot-on parodies of hard-R movies like The Hangover Part II and David Fincher's upcoming adaptation
of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And the actual film, which centers on the idea that the Muppets are getting back together after a decade
of obsolescence, relies on knowledge of the brand's decline that young audience members are unlikely to have.
Marketing children's movies to adults has a proven track record; both Shrek: Forever After and The Smurfs earned tens of millions
over their production costs, even before the foreign box-office was taken into account. This kind of marketing necessarily splinters the audience;
children laugh at the jokes written for children, and adults laugh at the jokes that are engineered to go over children's heads. But there's another,
increasingly rare way to market children's films to a mass audience: genuine mass appeal.
And that's where Hugo comes in, with a whimsical, guileless trailer that aims not to divide the children and adults in the audience, but to
unite them. At one point in Hugo's trailer, lead actress Chloe Moretz says "It's Never Land and Oz and Treasure Island, all wrapped into one."
It's a bold statement for the film to make. Never Land, Oz, and Treasure Island are the three universal touchstones for a rare but specific feeling - a
sense of wonder that cuts through cynicism and makes adults, as the saying goes, feel like kids again. As Hugo's trailer flashes monomythic
keywords across the screen - "Discover," "Hope," "Adventure," "Courage," and "Destiny" - it's clear that the movie's real aim is timelessness.
But have moviegoers old and young alike become too pop culture-savvy for the kind of irony-free whimsy that Hugo offers? The most reliable
arbiter of children's films I know—my nine-year-old cousin—is very excited to see next month's Alvin & the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked but
thinks that Hugo looks "too weird." There's plenty of evidence that shows that general audiences skew toward the former—like the failure of
this summer's gentle, whimsical Winnie the Pooh, which grossed a soft $26.5 million domestically despite 91 percent favorable reviews. When compared
to The Smurfs, which came out two weeks later and grossed nearly $142 million domestically with 23 percent favorable reviews, it seems that
contemporary mass audiences prefer their children's entertainment snarky and referential.