'Muppets' vs. 'Hugo': A Face-Off Between 2 Kinds of Kids' Movies

The perennial family-film question: How do you entertain children and parents at the same time?

Disney/GK Films

Today is the first day of one of Hollywood's favorite times of the year: the unofficial season of the family film. As families across the nation unite for tidings, good cheer, and a massive meal that generally inspires a day of lethargy, each Hollywood studio attempts to draw families out of their homes and into movie theaters. Today sees the release of two very different movies competing for this year's family box-office dollar: Disney's revival of The Muppets franchise, and Martin Scorsese's 3D Hugo. The marketing campaign behind each film—and the way that audiences respond to them—provides a revealing window into one of Hollywood's most enduring and lucrative genres.

In general, a film's marketing team follows a fairly straightforward path: "How do we make our target audience want to see this movie?" But marketing for children's movies differs from all other genres, because it doesn't directly target the movie's primary audience. Parents, not children, ultimately decide which movies their children will see, so marketing campaigns can't stop at "what will make children want to see this movie?" The real question is "what will make parents want to take their children to see this movie?"

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.

But even if the box office doesn't always reflect it, timelessness tends to win out in the end. The first Shrek, which is only a decade old, features dated references to then-hot properties like The Matrix and Xena: Warrior Princess. And Smash Mouth's "All Star"—the Platonic ideal of crappy '90s rock—has aged much more poorly than, say, John Williams' score for E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. By the end of the weekend, the box-office numbers will tell us the kind of children's films contemporary audiences prefer. But the true test will come decades from now, when tomorrow's adults decide which films of today are worth not just watching, but preserving.