NEW YORK — Jennifer Schmittlein wanted her young daughter, Paige, to have a good first experience at the movies. So she carefully watched the previews of children's "G" rated movies and waited for the right one. Finally, "Babe: Pig in the City" opened after a season of hype.
The first "Babe" had been so delightful that the Schmittleins decided to take their five-year-old to the sequel the day after it opened. They bought popcorn, snuggled into their seats - and promptly walked out halfway through the movie. "I was just mortified that from the beginning it was so dark and scary," says Ms. Schmittlein.
The "Babe" sequel is the latest in a string of animated "G" rated movies with scenes that can terrify young children. From "Beauty and the Beast" to "Bambi," the graphic nature of some scenes has infuriated many parents of young children and experts on child development.
The dramatic difference between the tone and texture of the first "Babe" and its sequel, both rated "G," has also increased the calls for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to create a new "G-6" rating to protect children under the age of 6.
"If anything ever illustrated the need for the 'G-6' rating, it's this situation," says Whitney Vanderwerff, head of the National Alliance for Non-violent Programming in Greensboro, N.C., a grass-roots media-literacy group.
The MPAA defends its rating system, contending it is simply a guide to give parents a warning about a film's content. The responsibility of determining the appropriateness of any film for a child, says MPAA president Jack Valenti, still lies with that child's parent.
"If you're a parent you ought not to be taking children under 5 to the movies. They ought to be watching videocassettes," says Mr. Valenti.
But child-development experts say that's not realistic in today's media culture, particularly because movie studios aggressively market their products to young children. And movies are made into video cassettes soon after they're released.
"Frankly, there are very few movies out there that should be rated 'G' - for all children," says Joanne Cantor, author of "Mommy I'm Scared," an examination of the impact of scary media on kids. "Very young children, under the age of 6 or 7, aren't yet capable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality - they can be easily terrified by seeing the wrong thing at the wrong time."
A study conducted by Ms. Cantor found that 43 percent of parents of elementary school children surveyed said that something on TV or in the movies had scared their kids so much it had an "enduring fear effect." About half of them said it interfered with their children's sleep.
"Parents want to know what's going to scare their kids, and 'G' is more distracting than helpful," says Cantor.
But Valenti contends no rating can protect every child from every movie. Parents' common sense should be the guide, he says. That's what the MPAA relies on. The industry's rating board is made up of eight to 11 parents with children under the age of 17, who the MPAA believes have "intelligent maturity" and the capacity to put themselves in the role of most American parents.
"These people are neither gods nor fools, they're just parents," says Valenti, noting the board rated 520 films last year. "You're going to make errors, but they're errors of judgment, not a lack of integrity."
In the mid-1980s, the ratings board and the MPAA decided the gap between an "R" rating and "PG" was too wide - too many pictures were not graphic enough for a restricted audience but had language or scenes that were too foul for some early adolescents. As a result, it created the "PG-13" rating.
But Valenti does not believe the gap in understanding between a four-year-old and an eight-year-old is significant enough to warrant a separate rating for toddlers. "Where do you draw the line on a 'G-6' rating?" Valenti asks. "We can't slice the bologna too thin; we're incapable of making these fine distinctions."
"Babe: Pig in the City" was originally given a "PG" rating. It was reedited and resubmitted, and then earned its "G" rating.
Many critics of the ratings board say that illustrates why psychologists or child-development experts should be included in the panel.
"If the rating system doesn't protect [young children], it's not doing its job," says Jacqueline Sears, founder of Mothers Offended by the Media.
Valenti points out that 74 percent of parents surveyed find the rating system fairly to very helpful. Ms. Schmittlein says she always believed the rating system was helpful, until her recent experience with the "Babe" sequel. It included a scene of a dog being dangled by his leg with his head under water.
"I didn't know how misleading the rating system really is," she says. "When I see a 'G' rated movie, I should be able to take my two-year-old to it and not be afraid of her seeing scary things."