OK; before I can start writing anything else: Do you know what’s a twilight zone-esque moment when you are searching for “pop references in 3D movies”? When the first entry of the google results is your own blog…

And now a question directly related to this post: do you know how many pop references you witnessed in all those years you watched 3D animated movies? Whenever I ask myself this question I get the feeling that it must have been hundreds if not thousands of references.

Something for everybody?

Pop culture references in themselves are, of course, a nice and easy way to spice up a movie. Not only are those references completely unrelated to the story and don’t interfere with it (well, at least most of the times), they also give something for those middle-aged people being “forced” into such a movie. So it seems everything is fine. Everybody gets something. The writer and director some more seconds to fill without working too much and some of the audience an easy joke.

But, of course, there are some problems with this formula.

Example 1 of bad pop references: Shark Tale

The story of Shark Tale deals with a fish who accidentally kills a gangster shark on the hunt and uses this encounter as a chance to step up the social ladder. Now while this reads quite nice on paper, the result on screen was not that amazing. In fact, I didn’t watch it through. And one reason I switched off were those extremely and annoyingly high amounts of pop references. From direct spoofs of gangster and mafia movies to more subtle/obscure ones, as the “Wings”-Poster (which shows Michael Jordan) in the background for example – this movie has everything. And way too much of it.

Shark Tale is a good example of how pop references (and culture references in general) cannot save a bad or underdeveloped story. A more recent example I didn’t watch is the “Bee Movie” which seemingly tries to squeeze all possible combinations of bee one can think of.

Example 2 of bad pop references: Robots

Now, Robots as a movie is not quite that bad. In fact the story had potential even though it relied on a standard formula. Besides all the (sometimes painfully obvious) pop references you see in this movie there is this one single moment that completely stands out. It is the moment when the “funny” red sidekick starts to dance to the song “Hit me Baby one more time” by Britney Spears:


While this Britney-Moment might have looked funny on paper it is in fact wrong on many levels simultaneously:

  • firstly, this reference uses a person that is not really liked by everybody in the world. So by adding some work of her in the end can hurt the movie itself (“Oh, come on! Why her… I can’t stand it anymore…”).
  • secondly, it is heavy time-dependent. If some kids watch this in, let’s say, five years with their family or their friends. Can you be sure they get the joke? (“Daddy, what was that song?”)
  • and thirdly, this joke/reference disturbs the story of the movie, or to be more precise, the world of the story because the song and the dance doesn’t belong to the world of robots (“What the…Since when does Britney live in a robot world?”)

Especially the third point is in my eyes important: a pop-culture reference in a movie, even a subtle one, can to some degree pull out the viewer out of the story. Either because he hates the thing being referenced, has to think about what has been referenced, hates pop references in general or gets a feeling that it doesn’t fit in.

Either way, I think that the writers and directors have act carefully since a device like this can be extremely damaging to the movie itself.

Some of them might think this is the only way to give something to the older audience so they are not being bored. But I think the best way to accomplish this is to write something good.

As Pixar shows again and again: you don’t have to use many pop-references to create a good movie. You “just” have to write a good story.


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