June 21, 2013 at 12:53 PM ET
Two family-aimed films are hitting theaters in the next two weeks. "Monsters University" is an animated 3-D movie about zany, friendly monsters -- one with just one eyeball -- and how they interact with humans. (Spoiler: They scare them.) "Despicable Me 2" is also an animated 3-D movie about zany, friendly monsters -- some with just one eyeball -- and how they interact with humans. (Spoiler: They work for them.)
From that description, is it immediately clear which film is rated G, for General Audiences, and which one PG, meaning Parental Guidance suggested?
If it's not clear to you ("Monsters University" gets the G), you're not alone.
"I do think there is less of a clear line between G and PG than there is between PG-13 and R," said Vincent Bruzzese, chief executive officer of the Worldwide Motion Picture Group, a consultancy serving the entertainment industry. "It's very clear what makes something an R. If you say the F-word X number of times, it's an R. But why are 'Cars 2' and 'Rio' G, and yet 'Madagascar' or 'The Lorax' PG? What is the difference there? I'm not sure."
The Motion Picture Association of America, which determines movie ratings, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Bruzzese's company's research shows that not only do many parents not understand what makes a movie a G, to some of them, that family-friendly rating might even be a deterrent, especially if they have older children.
"We actually see that parents have no problem taking (5- or 6-year-olds) to a PG movie," Bruzzese said. "But they'll have trouble getting their 10- or 12-year-old to go to a G movie."
And if parents do want to seek out a G movie, good luck. Many movies that sound like they should be rated G tend to get the older rating. May's animated "Epic," about a girl who's shrunk to the size of a bug and helps a race known as the Leaf Men, was rated PG for "mild action, some scary images and brief rude language." July release "Turbo," about a garden snail who dreams of winning the Indy 500, is rated PG. (Does the snail swear?) August sequel "The Smurfs 2" isn't yet rated, but it'll almost certainly be PG like the 2011 original.
"The G rating has all but disappeared from theatrical releases other than one or two animated films each year," said Nell Minow, who advises parents about movies as The Movie Mom. "It's all about money. School-age kids think that G-rated movies are 'babyish,' so only Disney can get away with it."
With so much movie information available online, today's parents today don't need to rely only on the MPAA ratings. "(Parents) do their own investigation of films," Bruzzese said. "They're able to go online and look up -- whether it's user comments or more about the plot, more scenes -- they're able to find enough information to give them that (knowledge)."
Ben Boychuk of Rialto, Calif., is one of those parents. "I don't have a hard-and-fast rule about MPAA ratings," said Boychuk, who has an 11-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. "I'll make a judgment based on whether I've seen the movie or barring that, by researching reviews and audience comments. IMDb is an invaluable resource -- what the Internet was meant for."
Wondering what has shifted since the days when kids saw only G-rated films? Experts point to many changes, including the addition of the PG-13 rating in 1984, the availability of movies of all ratings on home video and cable television, and the emergence of a generation of parents who grew up with such kid-tempting action films as 1977's "Star Wars." But a web-slinging, wall-crawling hero in tights might have something to do with it too.
"The family audience clearly has evolved in that it really, really started way back with the original 'Spider-Man' with Tobey Maguire," said Bruzzese. The 2002 PG-13-rated blockbuster "brought in a family audience to what would traditionally have been an older-skewing movie," he said.
Now, he said, "Today's 10-year-old is seeing what a 15-year-old would have seen 10 or 15 years ago."
Boychuk's family is a perfect example. Son Benjamin saw Maguire's "Spider-Man" on DVD at age 4 or 5. "He watched it at least a dozen times," Boychuk said. "The Green Goblin frightened him at first, but he wanted to see the movie again as soon as it was over."
But Boychuk notes that parents need to know their own children, who may be ready for different films at different ages. "My son was always great in movie theaters," he said. "My daughter (Isabella) is a different story. She can't handle most scary stuff, though she loves the classic Disney movies. ... I tend to be more vigilant with what we let her watch."
And the MPAA rating might not be the ultimate determining factor in how frightening a movie really is. In 2011, when TODAY.com asked readers to name the scariest scene in children's films, a scene from G-rated "Toy Story 3" repeatedly popped up. In it, Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the other toys are on what seems like an unstoppable moving ramp pushing them into a giant incinerator, with flames leaping high.
"As I think about it now, Bella was freaked out by the incinerator scene -- and so was I!" Boychuk said. "But Benjamin wasn't bothered too much."
The G rating will almost certainly continue to shift in meaning and usage, Bruzzese believes.
"If you look at the last 10 G-rated movies, half are either concerts or documentaries," he said. "More and more, as that becomes prevalent, the G rating will stand for not just the 'Winnie the Poohs' of the world, but will stand for things like (Disneynature 2012 documentary) 'Chimpanzee' or IMAX or a concert show. The G might start standing for non-traditional movie entertainment that's not offensive to any age group, whereas PG becomes the new G."