Stretching the boundaries of the average family film


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 a brutal shooting of a priest; and even the G-rated Chicken Little has aliens who vaporize a vulnerable town.

"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 University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication's entertainment program.

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 Association 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 Lord of the Rings. That goes in the other direction too -- the CG-animated (computer generated) movies are also playing as general audience entertainment."

Jacobson said that The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is "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 industry-wide penchant for dark fantasy (the Lord of the Rings afterglow), coupled with cutting-edge computer graphics that can generate fantastical creatures in believable and often horrifying detail, are 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 the University of California, Los Angeles have released studies on "ratings creep": the increasing nebulousness of the lines between PG-13 and R. Now the "creep" might be creeping into what separates PG from PG-13.

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 percent bloodless but still very powerful," according to Jacobson. "Nobody's head gets chopped off."

Jeff Blake, Sony's vice chairman of marketing and distribution, says that at least in the case of Zathura, it's just an extension of Hollywood tradition. The theme of 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 young 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.

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.

In the case of Harry Potter, Dawn Taubin, Warner Bros.' president of domestic marketing, pointed out that the studio opted for the new PG-13 rating in order to be true to the book, in which Harry and his friends have become teenagers. Taubin said that, "We have seen the franchise trending toward teens and adults and away from families. With the first movie, 67 percent of the audience was families -- parents and children under the age of 12. ... With The Prisoner of Azkaban, that figure was 40 percent."

Other people suggest that the intense new films are a reflection of the tough times in which we live and can provide a safe empowerment fantasy for children. Quoting Narnia author Lewis, the film's producer, Mark Johnson, said, "Since it is likely they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least hear of brave knights and heroic courage, otherwise you're making their destiny not brighter but darker."

In the end, it all comes down to box office. The spectacle of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will no doubt raise the bar for computer-generated imagery and pave the way for Peter Jackson's King Kong (PG-13) in December.

Rachel Abramowitz and Mary McNamara are reporters for the Los Angeles Times.

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