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Children's Movies Push the Boundaries of PG

Films now include dark fantasies and intense computer imagery, but ratings remain the same.

November 06, 2005|Rachel Abramowitz and Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writers

As it attempts to halt the year's box office slide, Hollywood is bringing out the howitzer for the holidays -- the turbocharged children's film.

For the last five years, PG-13 has ruled the box office; it's the imprimatur of the top-grossing films of the year. Now, kids' films, PG-rated and amped up with computer graphics, are trying to catch up.

The gentle fantasy of C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," with its snowy landscapes and talking animals, gives way to a fight-to-the-death battle between loyal Narnians and the ghoul-filled army of the White Witch.

In "Zathura: A Space Adventure," giant man-eating alien lizards menace a defenseless 6-year-old; "The Legend of Zorro" includes the brutal shooting of a priest; and even the G-rated "Chicken Little" has aliens who vaporize a vulnerable town.

While the intensity of children's films is clearly changing, the ratings are not, leaving parents to figure out on their own what's too terrifying for the smallest moviegoers.

The Motion Picture Assn. of America's system of assessing films for age-appropriateness hasn't been overhauled since PG-13 was invented 20 years ago after films such as "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and "Gremlins" were deemed too frightening for PG.

"The line between what's a family movie and what's a general-audience movie has been blurring for years now," said Nina Jacobson, president of Walt Disney's Buena Vista Motion Picture Group. "Many families went to see 'Spider-Man' together or '[The] Lord of the Rings.' That goes in the other direction too; the [computer-animated] movies are also playing as general-audience entertainment."

Jacobson said "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was "intense" in parts and "appropriate for 7 and up, but it depends on the kid. It's up to the parent to decide what's right."

The ratings system has long been the key tool for just such decisions. PG used to be the mark of the family movie, the seal of approval from the MPAA. But this year, an industrywide penchant for dark fantasy, coupled with cutting-edge computer graphics that can generate fantastic creatures in believable and often horrifying detail, is stretching the boundaries of what constitutes a family movie.

The studios all say they're following the rules, and the MPAA says its own surveys suggest parents think the ratings are "appropriate and informative."

But in the last two years, Harvard and UCLA have released studies on "ratings creep": the increasing nebulousness of the lines between PG-13 and R. Now the "creep" maybe be creeping into what separates PG from PG-13.

"The Lord of the Rings" was able to hold to PG-13 because most of the creatures killed were not human. "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" managed to keep its even child-friendlier rating by staging an enormous battle that is "99.9% bloodless but still very powerful," said Jacobson. "Nobody's head gets chopped off."

A Narnia sequence in which creatures catch fire was removed to avoid the PG-13 rating that "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" got -- putting it in the same rating category of such strictly adult fare as "War of the Worlds" and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith."

In the case of the Potter and Narnia books, filmmakers argue that their first loyalty is to the text -- but turning words into images may make the stories too intense for their original audience.

"When it comes to the impact of fright reaction, there is no question -- images stick in the psyche much longer," said Peter Vorderer, head of the USC Annenberg School for Communication's entertainment program.

Jeff Blake, Sony's vice chairman of marketing and distribution, says that at least in the case of "Zathura," it's an extension of Hollywood tradition. The theme of the PG-rated film is "very much like some of the classics, like 'The Wizard of Oz,' " he said. Blake draws parallels between Dorothy's journey and "Zathura's" story of two boys alone in a house suddenly propelled into space, complete with a terminator-like robot and a black hole that sucks all humans into its vortex. "It's based on a classic situation but told very much in the [style] of 2005," he said.

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As a group, family films are among the most lucrative in the industry, particularly for the DVD aftermarket, because successive generations will buy the films. But the pressure to keep adults and teens interested often pushes the maturity level of the narrative and imagery over the heads of young children -- the visual references to "War of the Worlds" in "Chicken Little" are clearly not intended for 5-year-olds.

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