First, for those unfamiliar, a little history lesson on the Motion Picture Ratings System. When the ratings system we Americans are most familiar with replaced the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) in the late 1960s, there were initially four ratings: G, M, R, and X. G was the rating assigned to films approved for general audiences, much as it is today. That said, early G rated films could still contain more adult content than their current (and quite rare) counterparts. M stood for mature, but was later changed to PG. R initially meant no one under 16 was admitted without an adult, and X meant no one under 16 was admitted, period. This system underwent some minor changes over the next 15 or so years. The age requirement for R and X was increased to 17, but mostly everyone was happy with this system. Just kidding.
Thanks to some of the more grisly content that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were able to include in PG rated films like Star Wars: A New Hope and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, parents began demanding a rating that fell somewhere between PG and R. In 1984, PG-13 was born, and as it became more common over the next decade, PG rated films became more tame. Still, it was relatively common to have several live action, critically acclaimed and culturally important PG rated films do well at the box office and receive awards buzz each year. Films like Apollo 13, The Truman Show, Pride & Prejudice and Good Night, and Good Luck were films that technically you could bring the entire family to, but they were not intended for kids. Eventually though, PG-13 become seen as the profitable rating, while PG-13 and R rated films became the only ones seen as edgy enough to be worthy of awards consideration. PG rated releases mostly consisted of animated/fantasy films and a lot of really lame live action family comedies. Oscars aren’t the only standard that should be used to determine whether a PG rated film, or any film for that matter, is a quality film. That said, between 2006 and 2018, the only live action PG film nominated for any major Oscars was Life of Pi, which featured so much CGI that the live action label probably deserves an asterisk.
Before I proceed, let me make it clear that I think the whole idea of the ratings system is stupid and increasingly antiquated. If parents want to know if a film is acceptable for their children, then there are plenty of sites that will do a lot better than provide a rating. There are websites now that detail every bit of content that could be considered objectionable. However, as long as we are still going to have this ratings system, then I feel the need to celebrate the apparent resurgence of the high-quality live action PG film. There have been an unusual number of them the past two years. I’m happy about this for two reasons. The first is that such films play an important role in creating future film critics and filmmakers who may be too young to watch PG-13 films, or who are technically old enough or mature enough, but their parents are overprotective. I’m not here to look down on animated films like some sort of snob. But if the only G and PG rated films out there are animated films and bad family-oriented muck like Playing with Fire, then a certain age group is being conditioned to expect and appreciate a fairly limited range of what film can be.
When I was growing up, my parents were fairly strict about what I was allowed to watch, though I definitely had friends who grew up in far more restrictive households. It was my first viewing of The Truman Show, a film that was like nothing else I had seen at that point in my life, that changed how I looked at film and what I thought the art form was capable of. For much of the past decade, tweens whose parents may not allow them to watch PG-13 rated films have been denied variety by the PG-rated new releases. That’s unfortunate when there are mature tweens out there ready for thought provoking themes and the works of inventive auteurs.
What was even more concerning to me about the lack of interest in quality live-action PG films was how it exacerbated the decades old problem of tailoring art to receive a rating that is seen as more profitable. Legend has it that in 1981, Chariots of Fire was initially rated G, but the producers felt that rating would hurt the film’s box office performance and added one obscenity just to get a PG rating. Ever since I heard that story, there have been countless times where I’ve been in a theater or driving home after a movie and had to wonder if the powers that be made a similar choice in order to get a PG-13 rating. We’ve all seen these really tame PG-13 and in some cases R rated films that were really just live action PG films, but one word or one brief bit of sex or nudity got the film a different rating. I’m not opposed to profanity or sexual content or even some violence in films, but I’m opposed to a screenwriter or director changing what was already a great piece of art just because they need to get a specific rating. I hate it when studios soften R-rated content because PG-13 films tend to make more money, and I also think there are some excellent PG rated films out there that make me oppose the idea that every good film intended for teens and adults has to be PG-13 or R rated.
I am seeing encouraging evidence that these attitudes might be falling away. 2018’s Leave No Trace, though not a box office hit, was one of the most thought-provoking films of the year and one that did receive critical acclaim. 2019 has been even better for the rating. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell was one of the biggest indie-cinema successes of the year and did fantastic at the box office for A24. This weekend sees the release of critical darling and awards contender A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women hits theaters on Christmas. Hopefully these films do well and studios can stop fearing live-action PG films intended for older audiences. Yes, we’ll probably still have to put up with The Greatest Showman 2, which I’m sure will be another PG hit, but no rating has a perfect record when it comes to quality.