Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Guidance always suggested

My wife and I were talking about movies last night, as we often do, and it came up that PG seemed like an endangered rating. It seemed to us that very few movies would fall into that categorization these days. Any animated feature or other movie geared toward kids would obviously get a G rating, and anything with even a flicker of violence, sexual material or bad language would jump straight to PG-13.

It struck me that this would be an interesting idea for a post. After all, PG is one of the bedrock ratings. It's existed since 1972, when it replaced its mirror image (GP), which itself replaced the rating known as M (for "mature") just two years earlier. That last one makes me laugh, since "mature" and "parental guidance suggested" would hardly be synonyms today -- just look at the system for rating video games.

So I searched today to see if I could find how many 2009 releases had been rated PG. After striking out on a handful of search strings, I finally got on the right track. And was a little surprised by what I found.

This handy website showed 2009 box office totals grouped by their MPAA rating. PG showed the top 20 results and then stopped, as did PG-13 and R.


Four movies.

See, it's not PG that's nearly extinct after all. It's G.

That's right, among all 2009 theatrical releases, only Hannah Montana: The Movie, Earth, Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience and Under the Sea 3D were rated G by the Motion Picture Association of America. Two of those are teenybopper concert movies, and the other two are nature documentaries.


If you're doing math, that means that not a single animated movie that's been released this year has been rated G.

Among those films that earned a surprise PG rating: Up, Monsters vs. Aliens, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, G-Force and Hotel for Dogs.

The thing that's extra weird is that none of the G-rated movies are actually movies intended for children. Two are aimed at teenyboppers, and two are for people who loved the documentary TV series Planet Earth, originally made for the BBC but aired here on Discovery.

So is there any movie parents can take their kids to without first heeding the MPAA's recommendation of "guidance"? Is there any movie that parents can just judge by its poster, without worrying that their child's mind is going to be poisoned in some undefinable way?

At first glance, the answer would seem to be "no." The days when feature-length Winnie the Pooh movies got theatrical releases are long gone. Every kids movie has a bit of an edge to it today, perhaps to keep step with a generation exposed to more mature language and themes at a younger age.

At first I wondered why a movie like Up would be PG, but then I remembered (spoilers ahead!!!) that the villain actually falls to his death at the end of the movie. (Well, I suppose he could have survived falling from a dirigible a mile off the ground, but it seems unlikely). That may be a step into more mature territory for Pixar, but it's an old-school trick in Disney movies. Villains were always dying at the end of Disney movies, on up through Gaston in Beauty and the Beast and Mr. Clayton the gorilla hunter in Tarzan. Yet you didn't see those movies slapped with a PG.

I'm guessing the PG ratings for Ice Age, G-Force and Hotel for Dogs are for excessive fart humor. For G-Force, the dang letter rating is right there in the title, yet it can't even score one. (Then again, I guess I wouldn't expect a movie called G-String to get a G rating either).

You could argue that the PG rating is "sexier" to a child than the G rating -- it makes him or her feel grown-up, which is what every child above age three wants. But that argument would only hold water if the studios and their marketing departments were the ones determining the ratings.

No, it's the MPAA, the subject of Kirby Dick's wicked 2006 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, which I suggest you watch for a good laugh. Not only does that film provide ample proof that this body is far more concerned with nudity than violence, but it also suggests that the highly anonymous membership is composed largely of moral majority types whom you crossed at your peril.

So is the MPAA getting even more squeamish about fart jokes and animals bonking each other on the head? Or are those fart jokes and head bonks just much more brusque than they used to be, to keep pace with faster times?

In the end I don't think it matters. Because the practical upshot is that most studios probably don't even desire a G rating anymore. They do control the rating in the sense that they can add just enough raunch to trigger the MPAA's heightened sensitivity to such things. If they want the more marketing-friendly PG, they can get it.

And who wouldn't want it? It's abundantly clear that the PG rating is not in the least affecting the box office for children's movies. Three of the top five highest-grossing PG movies this year are animated films, alongside more traditional PG fare such as Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithosonian and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In fact, our certainty that the latest Harry Potter had finally graduated to PG-13 was what prompted our discussion in the first place.

Sure, maybe there are some religious wackos who are actually observing a distinction between G and PG in their willingness to let their children see movies. But they are an extremely small segment of the moviegoing public. Besides, they have no leg to stand on, as it was some of those same people who took their children to the R-rated The Passion of the Christ. They thought seeing Jim Caviezel beaten within an inch of his life would help their children understand why/how Christ died for our sins -- long sinewy ropes of blood be damned.

If anything, a PG rating actually encourages a parent that the movie might be slightly more tolerable for them to sit through. There's a special kind of boredom associated with a movie that is not only directed at children, but also neutered into a lame vanilla stew of inoffensiveness.

So what's the future of general admission? Will G be like X before it? Will both extremes disappear from the cinematic landscape as we all search for a middle ground?

Time will tell. In the meantime, I'm going to go watch some digital guinea pigs.

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