Since the industry-wide adoption of computer-generated (CG) animation in the mid-1990s – starting with Pixar's Toy Story in 1995 – full-length animations have been among the most commercially successful features made or financed by Hollywood in the twenty-first century (Box Office Mojo 2015). The associated merchandizing is also hugely lucrative, capable of generating vastly more income than the films themselves. (For instance, the Disney Brand Corporation generated $40.9 billion from their licensed merchandizing in 2013; see Graser 2014.) As consumers, we are constantly being encouraged to enhance our cinematic ‘experience’ through branded toys, clothing, food and other ‘lifestyle products’. The over-abundance of merchandise aimed at very young children lulls many parents into thinking that the associated films are suitable for their offspring, yet many of these CG animations have not been designed with pre-schoolers (or even under-tens) in mind. This is because digital technology has diminished many of the traditional distinctions between live action and animation, enabling the films to be ‘shot with the speed, allusiveness, and impact of movies for adults … [making them] too noisy, dazzling, and confusing for very young brains to take in’ (Kirby 2009, 128). Advances in motion-capture technologies have also made these films ‘less identifiably “cartoonish” and therefore less apt to be defined automatically as juvenile entertainment’ (N. Brown 2012, 295).
There are other adult enticements. Many of the scripts for CG animations rely on copious amounts of dialogue to tell the story and deliver the comedy (the latter through tongue-in-cheek humour and meta-textual references) rather than visual, non-textual means which younger children can more easily follow. Moreover, these scripts are often delivered by leading names from the movie and music industries, and some catchy pop songs are included on the soundtrack. Whilst overtly adult sexual behaviour is still strictly avoided, allusive references typically manifest themselves through this use of pop music, which has become ‘the semi-sublimated packaging of adult sexuality for young children’ (Kirby 2009, 134). George Miller's digitally animated feature Happy Feet (Animal Logic Film, 2006; a co-production for Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures) – set largely among a colony of Emperor penguins in Antarctica – is a prime example. Beneath Happy Feet's surface pleasures, there are some ugly aspects concerning sex and race with which the pop songs on the soundtrack are inescapably entwined.