Movies, Cartoons and Age Ratings

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Writing in Slate Emily Bazelon describes how her children were frightened by the 3-D animated movie The Tale of Despereaux and wonders how to determine if a movie is to intense for a small child. Clearly a “G” rating is no guarantee.

This strikes a chord with me. Regular readers know that I always include a “Parental Guidance” section in my anime reviews, and I sometimes include similar notes in my short movie reviews. I do this because of some experiences that convinced me that this is important.

I remember taking my daughter to see Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when she was 5 years old. She watched the movie in rigid silence and afterward said that she liked it, in a tone that didn’t sound very convinced. Years later she admitted that the movie terrified her. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Snow White, after all, is basically a story about infanticide. You can sort of see why a small child might have a problem with that.

I’m sure there would have been no problem if she had been a few years older. The vast majority of 10-year-olds can watch any of the classic Disney cartoons without getting overly upset, even Bambi and The Lion King with their heart-rending death-of-a-parent scenes.

Many years before that I went to the opening of Ralph Bakshi’s animated The Lord of the Rings. I was astonished to find the theater packed full of mothers with their five-year-old children. Somehow I had been under the impression that everyone had read The Lord of the Rings and would naturally understand that this story was not appropriate for small children. Clearly I was wrong. However it seems that word quickly spread among the mothers. The next weekend the theaters were empty, and the movie quickly vanished, never to be released again.

To most Americans, animated cartoons are assumed to be (pretty much by definition) suitable for small children–and only for small children. Most American teenagers don’t want to be seen going in to see an animated movie (although they may watch animated cartoons on TV in the privacy of their homes). Most American adults won’t go to see an animated movie either, unless accompanied by a small child.

This has had devastating consequences for America’s animation industry. Teenagers are crucial to the viability of any form of mass entertainment. Parents may take their kids to a movie a few times a year, or buy them a few DVDs per year. Teenagers may go to the movies several times a month, and buy lots of DVDs. The resulting financial pressures have caused most American studios close their animation divisions, while the remainder abandoned the more expensive, though potentially more expressive, 2-D animation in favor of the cheaper computer-generated 3-D sort.

So we have a small number of studios turning out a small number of movies marketed to the parents of young children. The main goal is not so much to please the children, but rather to be acceptable to the parents who actually buy the tickets and the DVDs. The parents have low expectations. They want to protect their children, so the movies must have no bloodshed, no nudity and no bad language. They are not very sensitive to things that might be disturbing to small children but not to older viewers, and in general they are happy if they are not bored to tears.

The children themselves don’t have very exacting standards. They are so happy to be taken to a movie that they are prepared to watch anything, and they will be willing to watch a DVD over and over again as long as the content isn’t too upsetting.

Under the circumstances we are probably lucky that what we get isn’t a lot worse. There isn’t a lot of variety, but movie producers generally make an effort to deliver something written on multiple levels so as to appeal to multiple age ranges. It may be a bit intense for younger viewers, who will have a few sleepless nights thereafter, and it may seem a bit sappy to adults, but everyone will pronounce it acceptable.

The situation is worse with televisions cartoons and direct-to-video releases. The producers know that they can get away with producing “crap for kids” and very often that’s what they deliver. The kids won’t complain and the only adults who are paying attention are a few fanatics looking for things to complain to the FCC about. Since there is no need to entertain adults, this stuff is much less likely to be disturbing to small children, but I would worry about rotting their brains.

Most people assume that there is something inherently child-friendly about cartoons, that an animated sequence is inherently less disturbing than an equivalent live-action scene. Emily Bazelon shares this notion, but questions whether it still applies:

Perhaps the problem stems from the changing nature of animation. When Road Runner sends Coyote hurtling off a cliff, kids generally shrug off the calamity because they understand that the cartoon is all an utter fake, played for humor. Despereaux, by contrast, has the kind of Shrek-like animation that left Simon and Charlotte debating, in their after-movie analysis, whether the rats and mice were real…

When the animals (and people) are animated with such technical skill that they look like they could come to life, some kids lose their tolerance for watching them hurt each other.

I think this misses the point. Road Runner cartoons aren’t scary because the people who made them didn’t intend them to be scary. For that matter, Three Stooges movies aren’t scary, even though they are live action and full of violence, because they also are not intended to be scary. Most five-year-olds get the concept of slapstick humor. (Toddlers may be another matter.)

By the same token, if animators want to make something scary, even using traditional 2-dimensional animation, they can make it very scary indeed.

This should be obvious to anyone familiar with Japanese animation. Japanese attitudes toward cartoons are significantly different from American attitudes. Most anime is targeted primarily to a teenage audience, often with no concern at all for making it suitable for young children. (As a result, Japan has a rich and vibrant animation industry while America does not.) Sometimes the results are wonderful, but sometimes they are very disturbing indeed. When They Cry is a low-budget series with unsophisticated animation, but it is likely to give even teenagers nightmares. (And that was broadcast on television. Some of the direct-to-video stuff is much worse.)

Consider the plight of the American animator, who knows he is lucky to have a job at all, but would probably love to have the artistic freedom of his Japanese counterparts. Instead he knows that his work must be acceptable to the parents of small children, which in practice for a move means that it must qualify for a G or PG rating.

MPAA ratings are, in theory, supposed to be objective. The raters have a checklist of things to look for which can disqualify a movie for a particular rating. The exact contents of the lists are secret, but the current rules seem to be something like this:

G: No nudity. No bad language. No smoking. Violence must be minimal, with no battery shown on the screen.

PG: No nudity. No bad language. No smoking. Mild sexual innuendo is permitted. A limited amount of violence is permitted as long as no blood is shown.

PG-13: Any nudity or sexual situations must be very brief and soft-focused. A single instance of one of the Seven Words is permitted. Smoking is allowed. Bloody violence is allowed, but no closeups of entrails please.

R: Frontal nudity and simulated sex are permitted, but no genital closeups. The Seven Words are permitted. Violence is permitted, pretty much without any limit.

It might occur to a creative animator that he can work in some pretty disturbing stuff without violating anything on the checklist.

As Bazelon notes, this means that the ratings are of limited value to parents. If you just want to make sure that your kids don’t hear the Seven Words, then you are all set. If you also want to make sure that they don’t have nightmares, the ratings won’t be much help.

So what is a parent to do? The main thing is, don’t be like the parents at The Lord of the Rings–or the parents of a small child that I saw disrupting a screening of a Harry Potter movie with his hysterical crying. You can’t assume that something is OK for your kids just because it is a cartoon, or based on a children’s book. (Some juvenile and “young adult” fiction is surprisingly dark.) If your kids are young enough that they have to be “taken” to the movies (as opposed to dropping them off in front of the theater with money to buy tickets) you need to familiarize yourself with the content beforehand and make an informed judgement about whether they are ready for it. Once they start going by themselves its probably OK to let them make their own mistakes, within the limits imposed by the ratings system.

But Bazelon did all that. She even played the audiobook to the kids, and they liked it, but they were still upset when they saw it unfolding on the screen. At that point I think the only thing to do is write it off to experience. I don’t think my daughter was permanently harmed by watching Snow White at age 5, though she certainly would have enjoyed it more if she had waited a couple of years. You do your best, you learn from experience, and most of the time things will work out OK.

No rating system can tell how your child will react to a particular movie or video. In my anime reviews I try to mention the material that I think may be problematic, and I usually give the age range that I think is appropriate. But age ratings can only be rough guidelines since each child is different, and even a child who is inured to most things may find certain material distressing. You know your child better than anyone else does. If you exercise your best judgement you probably won’t go too far wrong.