There seems to be a trend in films to have a children’s show appear in them, which would reflect or reference the film’s plot or genre in some way.
In Jurassic Park III, while the protagonists are being attacked in a river by a Spinosaurus, the scene is intercut with Ellie’s (Laura Dern) son, watching Barney the dinosaur on TV, making a comically ironic juxtaposition of the cuddly dinosaur with the terrifying one.
The director of the original Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg, also includes children’s show in his 2005 film War of the Worlds. The daughter of Tom Cruise’s character, played by Dakota Fanning, tells him that her brother has stolen his car, at which point we hear Patrick from Spongebob Squarepants on the television, saying ‘It’s the clam burglar!’.
Spielberg has used a children show before, perhaps more significantly, in his 1974 feature film debut The Sugarland Express, a crime road movie in which a couple, Lou Jean ( Goldie Hawn) and Clovis (William Atherton) take a man hostage are being pursued by the police and the media. At one point the couple watch a Road Runner cartoon, and as Wile E Coyote plummets to his doom, the smile on Clovis’ face fades, as though he realizes that he might be destined for similar disaster. It’s a subtle moment that foreshadows his tragic death.
M. Night Shyamalan, a director greatly influenced by Spielberg, has also used a children’s cartoon as a way of prophesying a film’s climax. In his alien invasion film Signs a young girl watches a scene from Dexter’s Laboratory. In the cartoon, Dexter, after a lab malfunction gives him the head of a spider, scares his mother, resulting in his father swatting him with a broom. By including this scene in the film, Shyamalan foreshadows a moment at the end of the movie, where Joaquin Phoenix’s character kills an alien with a baseball bat.
In Shyamalan’s previous film, Unbreakable, his brilliantly realistic take on the superhero story, the protagonist’s son is flipping through channels on the TV at one point stumbling upon The Power Puff Girls, a cartoon about super heroic girls. Perhaps Shyamalan places it there to imply how much comic book heroes have become ingratiated in popular culture and the media, and to establish that this is the real world where comic books tropes are common knowledge.
Sometimes the significance of children’s TV shows in films is hard to decipher. In Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, we see a Bruce Willis’ character as a young boy watching a 1959 cartoon called Clutch Cargo. The cartoon, which depicts an Eskimo, seems to have little relevance to the rest of the film. Perhaps it’s just there to indicate the scene is a flashback. Likewise, Shane Meadow’s This Is England starts with an old clip of Roland Rat, a British children’s TV puppet character, in order to help establish the early 80s setting of the film.
Children’s shows may also appear in films to take us inside a character’s psyche. In Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, James Franco’s character, trapped by a boulder in a canyon and alone, thinks of a party he was told about with an giant inflatable Scooby Doo. Dying of thirst, he daydreams of all the cold drinks and beer on offer, and this accompanied with the theme tune of the Scooby Doo show, where the lyrics ‘we need some help from you now’ have a new resonance. Scooby Doo also provides the film with an effective jump fright, appearing in the canyon along with his trademark laugh, now seeming far more sinister then before.
In Synechdoche New York (2008), Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s protagonist, Caden, makes an appearance in animated form in a surreal fictitious Children’s cartoon, which also features a cartoon of a virus. Writer/director Charlie Kaufman includes this to tie in with the themes of sickness and death, and suggests that Caden, himself suffering from a mysterious medical condition, has begun to lose touch with reality.
Chidlren’s TV shows, with their bright kid friendly colors and content, can have a deeper relevance in movies, whether they are a way of the writer or director giving a knowing wink to the audience, creating comic effect through irony or having strong thematic links to the film. The next time you see a film, keep an eye out for a glimpse of a children’s TV show. If you look closely enough, you might figure out why it’s there.