If you're a parent with small children, summer is traditionally a time when there's lots for them to see at the multiplex. That's not untrue this summer. But if you're specifically looking for a film with a G rating, you may just be out of luck.
Two years ago, out of the more than 600 films submitted to the Motion Picture Association of America, 16 got rated G — the most in a decade. Last year, even if you counted re-releases, only 10 films got rated G. And this year, of the 250 films that have opened so far, not a single one has been rated G. Not one. Which is not to suggest there haven't been family-friendly films this year; they're just rated PG.
For instance, in Oz the Great and Powerful, based on L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz books, all it takes is a bit of digital violence, and a womanizing leading man, for Oz to become a place where parental guidance is suggested.
What's happened to the G rating? Well, let's start with what it is. In the words of the Motion Picture Association, G is for General Audiences — all ages admitted, meaning there is nothing in theme, language, nudity, sex, violence or other matters that the ratings board thinks would offend parents whose younger children view the picture.
There was a time, before the ratings system started in the 1960s, when virtually all Hollywood movies would have qualified for a G. Back then, to avoid government censorship, the film studios subscribed to the "don'ts and be-carefuls" of the Hays Code, which was drawn up in 1930.
Among its requirements: that no picture should ever "lower the moral standards of those who see it." The code banned nudity, sex and violence, as well as the mocking of religion, illegal drug use, and one thing that would be fine in a G-rated film today: interracial romance. Also banned: revenge plots, lustful kissing, the showing of a crime method in enough detail that it might be imitated, and of course, rough language. This last is why Gone With the Wind — the most popular picture ever made — stirred up controversy when Rhett Butler turned suddenly salty in his reply to Scarlett's plaintive, "Where shall I go, what shall I do?"
His "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" was startling stuff in 1939, though by the time the film was finally assigned a rating in the 1970s, community standards had loosened up enough that it still got a G. That was also true of Ben-Hur when it was re-released, despite the whippings and chariot races. And it was even true of Liz Taylor's sultry Cleopatra and a lot of pictures aimed at adults — at first. But when the ratings got better established, G films went from being marks of films for general audiences to being marks of films for children. And once children got wind of that, they didn't want to see them.
Film studios quickly discovered that for films aimed at more than tiny tots, it was wise to spice up that uncool G with a little suspense or language to get the PG that was more attractive to hip 11-year-olds.
These days, with virtually all live-action blockbusters rated PG or PG-13, the G represents a ghetto largely made up of nature films and animation. Not all animation, though. Shrek, Hollywood's biggest animated franchise and a film that makes being gross a point of style, is rated PG.
It's not that a G rating gets in the way of making money. Pixar-Disney has figured out the formula. They've had the top-ranked G-rated film every year but one in the past decade — from Ratatouille and Wall-E to The Princess and the Frog and Tangled.
But other studios aiming at kids' audiences have done just as well, if not better, without the G. Every one of the big animated franchises not made by Pixar-Disney is rated PG — including Despicable Me, Ice Age, Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar. And Pixar goes there, too — with the likes of The Incredibles, Brave and Up.
G may still mean suitable for general audiences, but parents seem to have decided it means suitable for babies. And that means even animation is trending away from the G.