Interesting thing about the two hit animated films of this Summer: both appear to borrow rather a large plot device from the very first issues of MAD, from back when it started as a revolutionary comic book in 1952. Warning: Spoilers ahead…
In Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda the villain Tai Lung escapes from his supposedly secure prison cell with the help of an seemingly innocuous item left by the prison warden. This is similar to the story of Mole! from MAD #2 (written by Harvey Kurtzman and illustrated by Bill Elder) in which the title character escapes from prison each time digging his way out with an increasingly smaller tool left in the cell by the prison warden.
Later in the movie, one character gets Tai Lung to briefly punch himself in the face during one fight sequence - shades of Superduperman doing the same to Captain Marbles in MAD #4’s Superduperman! (written by Harvey Kurtzman and illustrated by Wallace Wood).
Pixar’s Wall-E, meanwhile, displays a larger and more noticeable influence. The final third of the movie is set upon a spaceship holding the last of the human race, rendered lumpen, shapeless and thoughtless due to machines having provided anything they desire. This is highly reminiscent of a story from the first issue of MAD titled Blobs! (written by Harvey Kurtzman and illustrated by Wallace Wood). Although Kurtzman’s version was a satire on the 1909 short story The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster, it is the MAD version that has become the more well-known, and it is clearly the MAD version that inspired the world of Wall-E, even down to the transportation chairs, food being delivered as one requires it, robots being in charge of the infants and the claustrophobia-inspiring glass dome ceilings.
It’s safe to say that neither reference is a coincidence - it’s no secret that Hollywood animators are big fans of MAD; Brad Bird even smuggles the first issue into his film Iron Giant - but it’s harder to say which of these are references are intentional and which have been placed there subconsciously. Pixar aren’t known to shy away from directly referencing the classics - Monsters Inc features a shot-for-shot reconstruction of a famous section of Chuck Jones’ 1952 cartoon Feed The Kitty, for instance - but neither is it untrue to say that MAD’s influence is so great that it, like Warner Brothers cartoons, has permeated deep into the psyche of American popular culture.
Either way, one can’t help toying with the idea that this will become a trend, and that all the year’s upcoming blockbusters will include a reference to those early issues of MAD. Imagine it - Maxwell Smart will battle the Ganefs. Mulder and Scully will run from the Gookum. And Bruce Wayne will continually stop the action in The Dark Knight to remind us that “This story is a lampoon!”.