Going, going, gone?
G-Rated movies are harder to find, and not as innocent as you might think
WASHINGTON — Tsk. Tsk. If Jiminy Cricket were a movie critic, he might be wagging his finger at the makers of today's G-rated motion pictures. Violence? Sexual innuendo? Cigarette smoking? Jiminy might be asking: What are these doing in G-rated flicks meant for family audiences?
Industry sources, including a former official movie-rater, say some scenes slipping into G-rated films show that Hollywood's highly touted rating system needs serious repair.
Take for instance Disney's "The Lion King." Don Bluth, president of the Phoenix-based Don Bluth Films, wonders how it could get away with a "really, really violent" fight between two lions and still get its gentle-G rating.
"In a way, there is an exception to this rule, and it's Walt Disney Studio," says Mr. Bluth, whose company has made 12 movies, including "The Secret of NIMH" and "The Land Before Time." "They can get away with more violence and still get a G-rating.... I think if anyone else tried to do that," he says, there "might be a different yardstick."
Now, even Congress is taking an interest. Next week, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut will conduct a committee hearing on the ratings systems for movies, television, music, and videos.
A recent Harvard University study on alcohol and tobacco content in 81 G-rated animated feature films found that 47 percent contained drinking while another 43 percent showed smoking. G-rated films - including classic fairy tales from Disney's "Pinocchio" to "The Little Mermaid - are an open invitation to viewing by children because they are supposedly free of baser elements. The official description of G-rated films is "all ages admitted." But should they be?
Critics charge that there seems to be a conflict of interest within the very organization that hands out movie ratings.
The Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) board of directors is comprised of executives from seven major studios, says Jay Landers, a former member of the association's movie ratings board (see interview, left). He wonders how the ratings board can feel a sense of independence when it is rating movies put out by those very same studios.
"If [MPAA president Jack Valenti] shares the perspective that some of his subordinates seem to share - that raters are obligated to put the interests of the motion picture companies first and foremost above all else - that would make the ratings board corrupt by definition, because the ratings board is supposedly trying to represent the parents of our culture," says Dr. Landers, who lives in Oak Park, Calif.
But, counters Rich Taylor, MPAA vice president of public affairs in Washington, the names of the people who determine the ratings are kept secret from the board of directors. This anonymity "removes the possibility of bribery and tampering," he says.
Still, even sexual innuendo is making its way into G movies, says another industry executive, who asked not to be named. In Disney's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," for example, "there were some very sensual scenes that were very much deliberate," the source says.
Washington-area mom Elizabeth Baker would agree. The urban planner and mother of three boys under 13 says, "Even Disney [movies] that get a G have some innuendo in them.... It's surprising."
Ms. Baker also singles out "Hunchback" for its scenes of a "bad guy lusting after the heroine."
(A Disney spokeswoman could find no one to comment for this story during a two-week period. Pixar, which makes animated films with Disney, such as "Toy Story," also declined to comment.)
Parents do have ways to determine ahead of time if a G-rated movie contains these characteristics: websites and newspapers like the Monitor discuss specific content such as violence, sex, drugs, and profanity in films (see movie guide, page 14). Websites such as www.screenit.com, www.mediafamily.org, and www.kids-in-mind.com also advise parents on movie content.
G ratings: too vaguely defined
The movie industry itself offers no explanation for its G-rated films. This isn't true of the other ratings categories: A PG rating for DreamWorks's "Shrek," for example, lists "mild language" and "some crude humor" along with the rating in newspaper ads.
"The assumption ... is that if it's a G, then you don't need to warn anybody [about anything] because it's presumably innocuous," Landers says.
"Virtually no complaints" are made to theater operators about G movies, says John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners in North Hollywood, Calif., except for one: "There should be more" G-rated films.
Yet, G-rated doesn't necessarily mean kiddie fare. The original "Planet of the Apes" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" carry the G rating. "What's appropriate and what's not evolves with time," theater owners' spokesman Fithian says.
The MPAA ratings board, made up entirely of parents, "has no authority in itself to set policy," Landers says. And guidelines set forth in a booklet by MPAA president Valenti are "sketchily defined," he says. On the other hand, vagueness gives the board power because "they can interpret as they see fit."
"The guidelines are not a strict checklist," MPAA spokesman Taylor says. "The reason we want parents on the board is we want to look through the prism of a parental eye."
The MPAA annually retains the Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, N.J., to poll parents with children under 13 on their satisfaction with the current ratings system, Taylor says. The latest survey in September 2000 placed results in three categories: Fairly Useful to Very Useful (81 percent); Not Very Useful (17 percent), and Not Used/Not Heard Of (2 percent).
Melanie Ott, a mother of two boys, ages 11 and 14, says she thinks the system is "a great tool." However, Ms. Ott, a human resources director from Chantilly, Va, adds: "At every [ratings] level, movies have gotten much more liberal."
Parents and movie critics significantly influence the rating system. For example, director-producer Richard Rich of RichCrest Animations in Burbank, Calif., remembers to his chagrin that one reviewer chided his animated film "Swan Princess II" for being too "squeaky clean."
He also notes that in focus groups conducted for RichCrest - which has also made such films as "The King and I" and "The Trumpet of the Swan" - parents clamored for cleaner fare. Yet Mr. Rich also sees moms and dads letting their children see shows he says are inappropriate for the young set.
PG has edge over G-rated fare
Hollywood is often tempted to draw adults to G-rated movies (and widen their audience) by throwing in material aimed at grown-ups. "The feeling is [that] kids don't get [the adult material], but parents will get it ... [and] it's what's going to get the parent to watch it," Rich says.
The industry is now taking this a step further by making PG-rated animated movies, a genre formerly left to G-rated fare only. That raises the possibility that G-rated pictures could be going the way of the dodo. For example:
* Disney's big summer animation "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" is PG. So is the popular animated ogre flick "Shrek." Most animations, from "Toy Story" to "Tarzan," previously were G-rated.
* A "G" is "perceived by older teenage kids as being too young for them," says Dade Hayes, a senior editor at Variety, a publication that closely watches the entertainment industry.
* G-rated movies violate a Hollywood marketing rule: Always aim for a target audience. Gs are made for all audiences.
The G-rated film is "becoming an endangered species," says Variety's Mr. Hayes. "G is so passe now. If Disney and DreamWorks ... make animated fare that is outside of G, who's really going to be making G-rated films?"
There are exceptions, of course, including last summer's hip, yet G-rated, "Chicken Run" from DreamWorks. The success of any given G-rated movie "comes down to the sophistication of the script," Hayes says. He gives the classic book "Animal Farm" as an oft-cited example of an intelligent concept that can be enjoyed at "8 and 18 and again at 80."
A challenge for G-rated filmmakers is how to create conflict and drama that's appropriate for someone at age 8, yet entertaining for all ages.
Filmmaker Bluth, who left Disney in 1979 to found his own studio, says that portraying the bad guy in a G-rated film by using "alcohol and tobacco and drugs is a cop out." Give the bad guy "a quick temperament," he says. "Make him selfish. Have him use other people around him. Make him brutal."
On the positive side, the Harvard study - which looked at theatrically released movies from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937) to "The Tigger Movie" (2000) - did find that the average exposure for alcohol and tobacco in a G-rated movie has declined over the years.
Scenes with alcohol averaged 46 seconds per film back in 1937. That dropped to 10 seconds in G-rated films by 2000. For scenes with tobacco, the average was 136 seconds in 1937 but only 21 seconds in 2000. The results were published in the June issue of the journal Pediatrics in an article by Kimberly Thompson and Fumie Yokota.
But the study found something else, too. "Good guys were shown using alcohol and tobacco as often as the bad guys," says Ms. Yokota. A popular 1961 Disney animation, "101 Dalmatians," showed evil Cruella De Vil smoking her long-handled cigarette. But it also had all-around good-guy Roger smoking a pipe.
That was before the Surgeon General's warning about tobacco came out in 1964, though. When "Dalmatians" was made in 1961, "no one perceived [smoking] as wicked," director Bluth says.
Yet, long after the government report was issued, a butler smokes a pipe in "The Little Mermaid" (1989); the genie, a cigarette in "Aladdin" (1992); and Esmeralda, a pipe, and three gargoyles, cigars, in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1996).
The MPAA Ratings board doesn't even have an alcohol and tobacco-content policy, former ratings board member Landers says.
Some raters and association executives seemed "uncomfortable" with the idea of lowering a rating for drinking and smoking content, because they didn't want to "appear to be too censorious," he says.
The Harvard study found that only three of the 81 movies it reviewed contained antismoking messages. Not one had an antidrinking message.
The first antismoking dialogue finally appeared in an animated feature in 1986 in Bluth's "An American Tail."
Alcohol, conversely, hasn't been censured in animation dialogue, probably because it hasn't received the kind of public condemnation that tobacco smoking has.
Bluth says it rankles him that the movie industry often seems to strain out useful messages in an attempt to avoid seeming preachy. "Usually, if you don't stand for something, you don't stand against anything, either," he says. "You're just mush in someone's mouth."
Storytellers are the "leavening of society," Bluth says. He likes to quote from a Hollywood legend about silent screen star Lillian Gish. The actress said in a speech to a group of producers: "You have to remember that a movie is not an innocent thing at all. And that when you go into a film, and you sit there and you watch, somehow all the little molecules in your existence are rearranged by what you see and understand.
"So when people come out of that theater, they're slightly different. And you've either taught them something that they shouldn't have learned or you've taught them something really quite great. So watch yourselves."
A former rater lends insight
Sweet little "Pinocchio" could be slapped with a PG-rating nowadays.
If the 1940 Disney classic animation were screened today by the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) ratings board, it's likely it would be bumped from its current "all ages admitted" G-rating to the "parental guidance suggested" PG.
Former rater Jay Landers made a startling discovery while on the secretive MPAA ratings board: Films are not re-rated "in light of contemporary cultural standards." Many classics carry 30-year-old labels earned under outdated social values.
When the ratings system was set up in 1968 by MPAA president Jack Valenti, studios submitted some of their pre-1968 movies for evaluation. "Pinocchio" was among them: It received a G-rating in 1970.
But that G might no longer be appropriate, Dr. Landers says. And not just because of its 71 seconds of drinking and 271 seconds of smoking, as reported in a recent Harvard University study of G-rated films.
"We had a saying on the board that context is god," says Landers, whose confidentiality agreement with the MPAA bars him from talking about movies he rated in the late 1990s.
Using that criterion, the particulars of Pinocchio's eye-opening trip to Pleasure Island are not gratuitous, he says. They are full of lessons for the errant puppet-boy.
However, the movie also has intense "scenes of humiliation and terror" that "under today's prevailing parental mind-set would probably be more of a PG content," Landers says.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor