Confused about movie ratings? Chances are you aren’t alone. While movie ratings were once the unquestionable authority on the amount of violence, profanity, blood, and gore contained in a movie, ratings have become a bit murkier in recent years. Questionable scare factors in recent Pixar movies Frozen and Brave (for the ice monster and roaring bears, respectively) earned the films PG ratings, whereas Milo and Otis (which contains a graphic birthing scene) and Babe (which discusses butchering practices), maintained solid G ratings. And while Cars 2 is rated G despite the torture and murder of a car in an early scene, Despicable Me 2 earned a PG rating because of goofy, minion-related bopping.
In other words, traditional children-friendly ratings may not provide the insight you’re hoping for.
What about the classics?
The vast majority of animated movies made prior to 2000 were almost automatically bestowed with a coveted G-rating just because they were animated. Just look at the G-rated Disney movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where one of the songs, “Hellfire,” details a character’s urge to murder the film’s heroine. The seemingly rubber-stamped rating raised eyebrows when it was released in 1996, and film raters took notice. The dawn of the new millennium brought animated movies like Antz and Titan A. E. that pushed the envelope so much that the Motion Picture Association of America broke from tradition to label the movies with solid PG ratings. Once Shrek hit the theaters with its hard-won PG rating, fewer and fewer movies were deemed G-rated even though the thematic elements were sometimes milder than their predecessors’.
Movies made before 1984 lend even more confusion to the rating system. The modern ratings system was not in place until 1968, meaning that classic tearjerkers like Old Yeller and Bambi carry the unhelpful label of “approved.” Moreover, the system was initially designed to bestow G, PG, and R ratings on movies. PG-13 wasn’t introduced until 1984, and movies made prior to that year were never adjusted for the new ratings. As a result, kid-friendly PG-rated movies like Frozen, Shrek, and Wreck It Ralph share the same movie rating as Top Gun, Poltergeist, and Jaws. The Goonies may be a popular nostalgic movie for today’s parents, but its penis jokes, profane language, and drug references carry the exact same rating as the considerably tamer The Incredibles.
What’s a parent to do?
The bottom line is that parents can’t rely on movie ratings when deciding whether or not a movie is appropriate for little ones. Modern G-rated movies like Winnie the Pooh are fairly lighthearted, but older G-rated movies aren’t as easy to watch (think of poor Simba after his father dies in The Lion King). Parents must consider the release date for older movies as well as the descriptive modifier next to each ratings box. These modifiers strive to indicate why the movie received the rating it did, indicating such elements as language, sensuality, brief nudity, drug use, or violence. This is particularly important in an age where Salem’s Lot and The Muppets are both considered PG movies.
Some parents find website-designated ratings more user-friendly than the official ratings system. Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization based in San Francisco, California, uses their own ratings system to provide information to parents. Movies earn ratings of on (meaning content is age appropriate), pause (it’s a little edgy), off (not appropriate for the given age), or not for kids (totally inappropriate for kids of any age). Furthermore, Common Sense Media determines a minimum age level to help parents decide whether or not a movie is appropriate for a particular age group.
Some religious organizations have made movie ratings their mission as well. The conservative Christian group Focus on the Family’s movie-based website PluggedIn subscribes to the MPAA movie ratings system, but takes the information even farther by providing a synopsis of the movie; positive elements and negative elements within the film; spiritual, sexual, and violent content; crude or profane language; and drug and alcohol content. Their list is exhaustive and even details what characters wear (a low cut top or visible bra strap are considered sexual content) and say (“jeez” is considered profanity).
Although the MPAA ratings system may be the best well-known way to gauge a movie’s appropriateness, it’s not necessarily a perfect system. Don’t be afraid to look a little deeper into a movie’s content before deciding whether or not it’s something your child should see. You may be surprised by what you find.