I saw The Muppet's last week and it's incredibly good (though Amy Adams is a bit under-utilized and some of Bret McKenzie's soundtrack is a bit too close to his Flight of the Conchords stuff [not that there's anyhting wrong with that]). I walked into work the next day gushing about it and the security gaurd scoffed at me, saying that it was a children's movie. I wasn't sure why that mattered, but it got me thinking on the way big studio kids' films deal with the adults in their audience, and it seems to boil down to about three ways, which I'll divide here by their primary users (though obviously each company has released exceptions).
The DreamWork's Method:
While everyone making kids' movies tries to get top tier celebrities to fill the voice talent ranks of their films, DreamWorks pushes a little harder. Antz, kicked them off with Woody Allen starring in a loose adaptation of A Brave New World along side Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Jennifer Lopez, Sylvester Stalone, Dan Aykroyd, Christopher Walken, and this list could fill a few more paragraphs. Of course, it also has an implied rape and a war in which termites eat the ants. It's not really a kids movie in that regard, but hey! Cartoon ants!
Besides the tendency to lean on pretty dark plot points, DreamWorks movies also have the most blatant use of actual adult humor. Take, for instance, what Shreck says to Donkey upon seeing the villain's tower: "Do you think he's compensating for something?" The villian in question, of course, is Lord Farquad (haha, it sounds like fuckwad) and moments later Shrek enters the town to an "It's a Small World" parody with a prominent subverted rhyme (haha, they should have said ass).
That's the main thrust in this type of kids' movie: jokes that kids shouldn't get aimed squarely at the adults who have to sit through this drivel. I don't hate it because I think innuendo in kids' movies is evil, or that jokes like that lead to too interesting conversations with observant children. I hate it because it's lazy.
The Pixar Method:
Pixar tends to use recognizable voice actors for the starring roles in their films as well, but their main draw for adults is having an actually interesting plot. Their films usually handle a theme an adult can relate to in a way that keeps kids interested, not the other way around.
The Incredibles is, at it's heart, a film in which a man feels browbeat and pigeonholed by society, has a midlife crisis, and cheats (in his own way) on his wife. WALL-E is about a world destroyed in a consumerism-fueled apocalypse. Up is about an elderly man who refuses to live after the tragic death of his wife.
But, at times, these themes may play out a little too well for a kids movie. Toy Story 3 is about the fear of death or, worse, obsolescence. Before we get to the message that there is always someone who cares, we first have to go through hell, literally, as the toys become stuck on a conveyor jugging along toward an incinerator.
I find it hard to fault Pixar here, because they are great films. It's certainly commendable that the closest thing to an "adult joke" I can think of is Sally's tramp stamp in Cars. But I think there are valid complaints to be made about the adult nature of some of their themes.
The Muppets' Method:
Anyone familiar with the history of the Muppets knows that they have never eschewed adult humor in the old days. But such material rarely makes it into the movies. They also have the Muppets to sell the films, so stunt casting of names adults will recognize is left to cameos not marquees. (The obvious exceptions to that last point are the movies of the 90's: The Muppet Christmas Carol is about Michael Caine playing Scrooge, Treasure Island clearly stars Tim Curry, and Wizard of Oz is about as star studded in the main roles as a movie could get away with while still calling itself a Muppet film. A different point could be made that the Muppets are at their best when telling their own story, but I just pretend that the ones that don't star the Muppets don't actually exist.)
The (proper) Muppets movies are almost universally about being true to yourself (arguably, they all tell one story), and that's certainly something kids and adults need to learn. The adults are kept interested in the cameos (Charles Grodin in The Great Muppet Caper will always be a favorite) and jokes for adults that are not adult jokes: mainly the leaning on (and outright breaking of) the fourth wall. Plus, it's the Muppets and they're hard not to love.
So even if The Muppet's is a children's movie, it's a fine one. And if you write off a movie because you think it's aimed at kids, well, you've missed some amazing moments in cinema history (the first sequences of WALL-E and Up, anyone? And that's just recently).