This past weekend I took my youngest son to see Captain Underpants. While by no means a great movie it’s actually pretty funny, with a speed to the jokes and the story that keeps the energy up and moving along and doesn’t let you dwell on any criticisms you might be feeling. It’s perfectly geared toward boys under 13, full of the kind of jokes that you’d tell your best friend on the way home from school, which is exactly the conceit. It might seem a bit quaint because no one is sharing Snapchat and the jokes, if anything, seem a bit dated in the years since “South Park” made all form of crude humor acceptable playground and dinner table fodder. It’s a throwback to more innocent times when good-natured pranks were the worst thing a school principal had to worry about from two trouble-making kids too enamored with their own creativity.
I don’t see a lot of these kinds of movies so I was curious to see what trailers preceded the show. They were more or less exactly what I should have expected if I’d looked at release schedules for the rest of the year. But what jumped out at me was the music that was used in some of those trailers and it got me thinking about the tactical thinking behind those song choices. Here’s a list of what we saw and heard before the adventures of Captain Underpants got underway:
Song: “Castle on the Hill” (Ed Sheeran)
It’s funny because just a couple weeks prior to this I’d heard this on the radio and asked my older son what song this was and who it was by. I’ve never been a huge Sheeran fan but this one connected because of not only it’s driving beat and jangly guitars but also the lyrics.
Those lyrics are at least part of why it makes contextual sense for the movie. He’s singing about the wistful, wonderful days of youth. His first cigarette and his first kiss and all that. It’s an updated version of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” in that way.
That matches in some ways with the innocent perspective of the title bull in Ferdinand. He just wants to enjoy sunsets and flowers and not get into the violence of his fellow bulls. It’s not a perfect match and certainly a big part of its selection is just that it’s a contemporary song by a very popular singer, an attempt to make the movie hip by association. But it makes a certain amount of sense largely because the target audience for the song is the same one being sought for the movie.
Movie: Despicable Me 3
Song: “So Bad” (Eminem)
OK I get that the title alone makes it a fit for the movie, which has Gru struggling against his villainous nature after meeting his long-lost twin brother Dru. I’m sure at some point someone in a meeting said “What about ‘So Bad” and it was approved on the spot without further research.
But it’s hard to imagine parents being cool with their under-10 kids dialing up Eminem’s tune. Note that the trailer uses the “So bad” line from chorus liberally but not the line that comes later about how “you ain’t gonna wanna fuck nobody else again.” That seems like a lyric that has no place being anywhere near the marketing of a family-friendly franchise like this.
So why include it at all? Was the promise of “So bad” being a good line too good to pass up? Are Universal and Illumination trying to appear edgy? All this seems to setup is an awkward conversation later on if the kid comes back from the theater and wants to hear the song from the Despicable Me 3 trailer. Hopefully parents are better informed.
It makes me think of how so many trailers for kids movies use songs like “Welcome to the Jungle” or “Sweet Emotions.” The former is about surviving the heroin-riddled streets of Los Angeles, the latter at least in part about getting away responsibility free from the pregnancy that results after having sex after the high school dance. Not exactly messages that are great for The Secret Life of Pets or other all-ages movies. But as long as the editing is sufficient, a song whose mere presence got myself and a few of my friends grounded after our parents discovered it is now just fine to associate with snuggly rabbits and madcap animated adventures.
Life comes at you fast.
Movie: The LEGO Ninjago Movie
Song: “Bad Blood” (Taylor Swift)
In the movie the key point of conflict seems to be between Lloyd, one of the heroic ninja warriors, and his father, the evil Lord Garmadon. There are at least three or four jokes in the trailer that hammer that home, showing the dysfunctional relationship that exists between the bad guy who wants to level the city and the hero who’s determined to stop him.
That makes Swift’s song about feuding with someone (I’m not going to get into whom) somewhat appropriate. It’s all about the rift that exists between the protagonist and the person she’s dealing with. They used to be close, but are now at odds. Swift’s appeal across gender and other demographics make it a solid, if somewhat generic and uninspired choice. But its usage in the trailer, which is played somewhat for laughs, is at least moderately appropriate and certainly fine for all ages.
Movie: The Emoji Movie
Song: “Don’t Bring Me Down” (Electric Light Orchestra)
The trailers and other marketing here are selling the movie as the story of the Meh emoji that lives in a young boy’s phone trying to break out of his assigned role and explore a wider range of emotions.
So “Don’t Bring Me Down” is meant to be that Meh emoji telling everyone else to let him be happy and excited and not be stuck in the limited emotional range. The song itself is more about telling a woman to live up to her crazy, wild reputation, but that’s not super important. It’s certainly not as offensive as Eminem’s lyrics, filled with more entendre than anything overt. And it’s part of how classic rock has become a kind of go-to tactic for movie marketers who want something that will have just the right lyric or two for the kids while speaking more to the older audience.