The MPAA spoke up recently and said that if they had the chance to go back in time and re-rate Toy Story 3, they would have given it a PG based on the complaints of parents after the fact. And while the title of this post is gonna be specific–kids movies should be as scary as adult movies and for more mature reasons–the theme is general: the MPAA is a bad thing and should be abolished. Ratings need to be made in public, and for better reasons than just “Toy Story 3 wasn’t that scary”, and at the moment, ratings are made in anything but public. I understand protecting the identities of the people telling your children they can’t see Bruno for featuring “male nudity” (that’s an actual thing now, look it up), but I don’t understand using that anonymity to conceal hiring exclusively conservative parents whose children are, at their youngest, are in their late teens. So, the first thing we’ll investigate is Toy Story 3 and the ratings for children’s movies in general in the last ten years.
Have you noticed these days how PG seems to be the minimum rating for a movie aimed at kids that’s live-action? I can’t name any specific examples, but I can at least use the general trend as a justification for the glut of animated-means-for-kids movies that come out these days. Note on terminology: a kids movie entertains kids, a family movie entertains everyone. It doesn’t stop it from being a kids’ movie if it features references to things only adults will get if the storyline is almost condescendingly simple and every character is a collection of stereotypes instead of a human being or person analogue. This duality is perhaps demonstrated by picking a pair of features from one company. I’m sorry, Pixar, but while everything from Toy Story to The Incredibles and from Ratatouille to Toy Story 3 are family features, Cars is a kids’ movie through and through. And there’s nothing wrong with this, as at least Cars isn’t condescending–just simple.
So, now that we have that distinction firmly in mind, I should hope–kids’ movies [simple characters, simple plots] family movies [deep characters, adult situations/concerns]–you should notice that kids’ movies are almost exclusively animated nowadays when that wasn’t always the case. As recently as 1997 (holy crap, that’s not recent, that’s 14 years ago) we had Mousehunt–a movie unashamedly for kids in live-action. But that kind of movie seems to be the last of its kind. Nowadays, every movie has to be animated if it’s going to be for kids–in order to get a G rating from the MPAA so that kids aren’t kept from seeing it by their parents. I don’t know whose fault this is–whether it’s the parents, for not taking their children to PG movies or whether it’s the MPAA for insisting their ratings be taken seriously–but it’s a reality we need to start addressing. Movie ratings have become more than just suggestions on what to show your kids–they’ve become a very real influence on how we make, market and watch movies.
Because I love to beat up on him, let’s go Chris Nolan. Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception–these movies range from average to fantastic, but all of them have something sinister in common with Avatar (that at least Avatar had the decency to be honest about): They aren’t made, so much as they are crafted. Every portion of those four movies, every frame in front of your eyes is calculated to put the most number of butts from all age groups in the most number of seats, despite the fact that the stories the movies are telling are likely far over the head of a youngster. Not to mention featuring unspeakable acts of violence that–to pass the ratings board–feature little to no visible blood. And why not? So that kids can pay for tickets to see them. Movies are now being made not to be true expressions of art or the director’s opinion, but also to pass the arbitrary and changeable judgment of a board of people who have never been named and have no background in film criticism.
And here’s where I get to why it’s bunk to say that Toy Story 3 should have been rated higher for being “scary”. Because if we’re rating films based on how frightening they are, or how much peril their characters are in at any one time, we’re no longer rating films on the types of content that can leave children in a lifetime of analysis–we’re rating films based on the fact that parents took their kids to a family movie and didn’t have the sense to realize their children might be emotionally affected by it. It’s one thing to rate a movie PG for featuring profane language–though the exact regulations of that are entirely outdated–but it’s simply unacceptable to say a movie should have been rated higher for being “frightening”. In the right context, everything can be frightening. And it might be more important for children to learn that in the face of what seems to be your demise, you should hang on to your friends because they’re the most important things in the world than to learn that gnomes are funny.
Bambi was scary. And Bambi is a movie we delight in showing to our children, year after year, on down through the generations. And you know why we do that? Not because it’s scary and not because it’s perfectly calm throughout. We know full well that the death of Bambi’s mother will teach our children an important lesson about mortality and how some day, your parents will die and you’ll be sad, but you’ll live. So we watch Bambi with our kids and have important conversations about life, death and the love of a parent for a child and how that never goes away not because it’s G-rated and not because it’s entirely inoffensive to children. We watch it with them, as a family, over and over again, because Bambi is one of the best movies ever made for family viewing. And that’s entirely because it’s scary.