Modern animated movies, no matter what studio they come from, typically have a number of recognizable traits. There's a cast full of A-list celebrities (whereas just three decades ago, it would be unheard of for major actors to do voice work), plenty of references to the world of pop culture, and even more inside jokes. In-jokes can range from anything like the ubiquitous Pizza Planet truck in Pixar's filmography to more winking, meta-tastic fourth-wall-breaking gags that are best appreciated by those audience members who are in on the joke to begin with.
On the eve of the release of Warner Bros.' highly anticipated sequel The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, from the masters of the meta-joke Phil Lord and Chris Miller, let's take a look at the 10 best examples of meta-humor in modern animated movies.
All the merchandising in Hercules (1997)
A few years after they directed Aladdin, Ron Clements and John Musker went back to another legendary hero for their next film. Hercules is an adaptation of the classic hero's journey, but it's also jam-packed with meta-humor about its chiseled protagonist. While Hercules' story takes place in the olden days, when he becomes a beloved hero to the cities of Greece there's an abundance of — cue the Mel Brooks voice from Spaceballs — merchandising!
There's everything from branded sandals to drinks and food to credit cards to show off how quickly Hercules' star is rising. The merchandise is an actual plot point, and a source of frustration for the villainous Hades (James Woods, channeling oily Hollywood agents for his performance), who can't believe his henchmen are sporting his merch while trying to take Herc down.
Hercules is largely a funnier film than you might remember, and the merchandising angle is an especially witty, clever way for Disney to skewer itself.
The scene with the princesses in Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
For a few minutes in Ralph Breaks the Internet, Wreck-it Ralph and Vanellope Von Schweetz not only find themselves inside the internet — they find themselves inside Oh My Disney, a real Disney website that's full of upbeat quizzes, stories, and videos. Ralph and Vanellope come across a slew of Disney characters, with cameos from the likes of Nick Wilde, Grumpy the Dwarf, C-3PO, and even Groot.
But then Vanellope wanders into a large, communal dressing room that's home to the Disney princesses, everyone from Snow White to Moana. The ensuing scene is full of fourth-wall-breaking references to the common storytelling tropes of princess films, the notion of women needing to be rescued by men, and more. There's a reason why Disney advertised this scene early — it's an unforgettable Ouroboros of pop-culture references.
The Sam Raimi Spider-Man jokes in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was the best animated film of 2018, and while the film's eye-popping animation and heartfelt story were delightful, one of its best elements was its very meta sense of humor. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who wrote The LEGO Movie 2, were also part of the writing and producing team for Into the Spider-Verse, which shows with the myriad amount of Spider-people Miles Morales encounters on his journey to heroism.
But when we first meet Spider-Man, he's basically the Spider-Man of the Sam Raimi era, down to a sheepish reference to the truly painful dance sequence in Spider-Man 3, to which Peter acknowledges "We don't talk about that much." (This Spidey does, however, have a Christmas song or two to sing.)
There are other great meta gags in the film (such as an alt-universe tie-in to the Broadway run of Oh, Hello, featuring comedians Nick Kroll and John Mulaney, the latter of whom voices Spider-Ham), but every time the movie acknowledges what we know about Peter Parker, it gets a little bit better.
Rex Dangervest in The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (2019)
The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, like its predecessor, incorporates a wide swath of characters and locations from the vast world of popular culture. There are — spoilers ahead — visual cameos from Doc Brown and the DeLorean from Back to the Future, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and a two-scene cameo from a LEGO version of Bruce Willis (with Willis providing his voice, too.)
But in a film full of meta-moments, the most self-aware part of the film is new character Rex Dangervest, voiced by Chris Pratt, who also plays the film's hero, Emmet. Rex is, among other things, a raptor trainer, galaxy-saving superhero, and a script doctor (because, of course). Not only do some of the character's jobs tie into Pratt's action-hero cred, but Pratt's vocal performance is clearly aping that of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 co-star Kurt Russell. It's a hilarious twist on a character Pratt has made his star with.
References to Disney's animated future in Zootopia (2016)
The 2016 winner for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, Zootopia is an inherently charming and rewatchable buddy comedy that's probably the most successful case of Disney Animation utilizing the Pixar Animation Studios style of storytelling to date. There are a couple of memorable tie-ins to the studio's recent past and future, one of which has — because of long development periods — already become outdated. First, when Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) tries to win an argument with her commanding officer (Idris Elba) in the Zootopia Police Department, he reminds her that "Life isn't some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true! So let it go." Ahem.
Later, Judy and Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) shake down an informant for details, but not before he showcases some bootleg movies he's got, like Floatzen 2, Meowana (which hadn't been released when Zootopia opened in March 2016), and Giraffic, the latter a reference to the now-shelved Disney riff on Jack and the Beanstalk, Gigantic. Still a good joke!
The blooper reel in A Bug's Life (1998)
You may have forgotten the brief period when Pixar movies had closing-credit bloopers, but it was a thing for a few years. In their earlier days, before even Finding Nemo, Pixar winked at the audience a lot more. The studio's first several films featured bloopers at the end of the credits, a riff on real live-action bloopers which themselves feel staged.
In A Bug's Life, there are plenty of gags mocking bloopers where actors flub lines, walk into the camera, and more, with verbal and visual nods to Toy Story, to boot. (As an added bonus, the first blooper features a character laughing in the face of Hopper, voiced by Kevin Spacey, when he asks if he looks stupid. Timing is everything.)
Bring back the bloopers, Pixar.
Paying homage to Pixar's lucky charm in Cars (2006)
Pixar's Cars is largely not a very good film. The animation looks incredible, even for a film that's nearly 15 years old, but the story isn't too interesting. Still, there are a couple good meta-jokes in the 2006 film (in which our hero Lightning McQueen has tires from the Lightyear company) but the best comes during the end credits. As in every other Pixar film to date, John Ratzenberger appears in the film in a small role, this time as a friendly Mack truck (named Mack, of course).
During the credits, Mack is watching a series of movies at the drive-in at Radiator Springs — in fact, he's watching scenes featuring Ratzenberger's characters from earlier Pixar films, only all the characters are cars. Tom Hanks, Billy Crystal, and others returned for brief cameos, but the big fourth-wall breaking moment comes when Mack says, "Hey, they're just using the same actor over and over. What kind of cut-rate production is this?"
Leaning into the darkness in The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
The first LEGO Movie has all sorts of in-jokes and meta pop-culture references to the characters and worlds it depicts, and the same is true of The LEGO Batman Movie. This hilarious spinoff is all about the brooding Batman (voiced marvelously by Will Arnett) and his eventual bonding relationship with Robin (Michael Cera). The first flick had some nice winks at Batman’s role in pop culture (like the "Darkness! No parents!" theme song,) but the spin-off takes more direct aim at superhero tropes.
Right at the start, while the studio logos appear ominously, á la the Christopher Nolan era of Batman movies, Arnett's voiceover explains why this means the audience is in for a really special superhero film. "Black. All important movies begin with a black screen."
Duloc the Disneyland parody in Shrek (2001)
The first Shrek is full of jokes specifically targeting the films of the Walt Disney Animation Studios. For whatever reason — perhaps because DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg had previously worked at Disney Animation as one of its top executives — Shrek goes to town mocking all sorts of fairy-tale storytelling tropes and characters, especially the modern Disneyfied version audiences are familiar with.
The pinnacle of the anti-Disney jokes occurs when Shrek (Mike Myers) and Donkey (Eddie Murphy) visit the kingdom of Duloc, where Lord Farquaad rules. Duloc, despite its generic-sounding name, is very clearly a riff on the Disney theme parks, complete with its own version of It's A Small World that boasts doll-like figures singing overly sweet and saccharine songs over and over and over. Shrek, in general, has not aged very well in terms of its story or animation, but its digs at Disneyland are perhaps its sharpest of all.
Robin Williams’ Disney references in Aladdin (1992)
It's fair to say that the modern era of adult-targeted pop-culture references began with the film that also introduced A-list celebrities to the world of animation, Aladdin. The presence of Robin Williams as the irrepressible Genie in the 1992 hit changed the whole animation game. Much of his charm comes from the way he references things that Aladdin couldn't possibly understand, from Ed Sullivan to Jack Nicholson to Rodney Dangerfield.
Of course, some of his references were to Disney itself. There's the moment when the Genie presumes his pal is lying, so he transforms his head into that of Pinocchio, long nose and all. And then, while searching through a cookbook to transform Aladdin into the rich Prince Ali, he sees a recipe called "Alaskan King Crab," whipping out Sebastian the crab, clamped onto his finger. "I hate when they do that," he says quickly before moving onto the next joke. There are so many gags in Aladdin, and in Williams' performance, that you might not even catch these jokes, but they're high points.