Cartoon movies are having a hard time getting “G” ratings these days

By Scott Mendelson “The Lion King” had a major character’s father being murdered onscreen, another major character being eaten alive by hyenas, and a young child snuggling up beside the corpse of the above-mentioned recently deceased father. “Tarzan” opened with a blood-stained cabin containing two corpses and an infant being eaten alive off screen, and it ended with the onscreen shooting death of a major character and the hanging of the lead villain. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” had an onscreen neck-breaking murder of a young mother, the attempted drowning of her baby, and an entire subplot involving the villain’s need to desire to screw and/or murder the heroine because of his guilt-ridden lustings for her that felt like a cross between “Schindler’s List” and “Sweeney Todd” (great movie and great song… why don’t they make kids toys that sing “Hellfire?”). Yet they all received G-ratings from the MPAA back in the 1990s. Yet just last week, Walt Disney’s “Tangled” received a PG rating for the unholy crime of ‘brief mild violence’.

Back in my day (about ten years ago), the PG rating was a kiss of death for an animated feature. “The Black Cauldron” in 1985 was the only major Disney cartoon to receive said rating, and it was an infamous flop for the struggling studio that instigated the changing of the guard which brought about the Jeff Katzenberg/Mike Eisner/Roy Disney 1986-1994 era-of-awesome (I’d argue that it lasted until 1999, but I’m a fan of their post-“Lion King” work). As the 90s drew to a close and Dreamworks waged a genuine campaign against the Disney animation monopoly, they used the PG rating to signal that their initial films (“Antz,” “Prince of Egypt,” etc) would be a bit more hard-edged than the stereotypical all-ages Disney films. Fox tried their luck with the PG-rated “Titan A.E.” in summer 2000 and flopped so hard ($75 million budget > $36 million worldwide gross) that Fox nearly ceased to even have an animation branch, and the one-time would-be Disney rival Don Bluth ceased to have a career all-together. While Disney tried their hand at hard-PG action in 2001 with “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (if you want a film that feels like it inspired “Avatar” just as much as “The Battle For Terra”…), but the film grossed just $84 million domestic.

Ironically, just a month prior, Dreamworks would release the film that would more or less completely kill the notion that PG = box office death. Of course, we’re talking about “Shrek,” which received a PG for ‘mild language and some crude humor’. The film established Dreamworks as an equal to the Disney animation empire, grossed $262 million in the US, and won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Animated Film. Once Dreamworks proved that PG didn’t necessarily equal box-office doom, the floodgates opened. In fact, of their twenty animated features, only three Dreamworks cartoons have been rated G (“Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” and “Chicken Run”). All three “Ice Age” films from Fox (the franchise that revitalized Fox’s animation department) all had PG ratings, as did Robots (“Horton Hears A Who,” a $145 million-domestic grosser, had a G).

The weird side-effect of this over the last decade is that while more and more animated movies have been willing to go with the PG rating, it has seemed harder and harder to actually get a G for films that seemingly would deserve it. Sure, the two Pixar PG-films (“The Incredibles” and “Up”) had onscreen deaths and heart-wrenching drama, but “Lilo and Stitch” basically got a PG for having a rude and obnoxious alien furball as a main character (or, um… ‘mild sci-fi action’). Most Pixar films, even the emotionally-devastating “Toy Story 3,” went out with G ratings, but “Bolt” went out with a PG for basically having a (fantastic) curtain-raiser opening action sequence that was quickly revealed to be fake and for a climactic moment of fiery peril for the lead characters.

To read more go to Mendelson’s Memos.

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