The Tale of Despereaux runs 87 minutes, and for at least one-third of them, my 5-year-old son, Simon, watched the movie with a pained expression and his hands over his ears. The story, about a book-loving mouse who rescues a princess by defeating a horde of rats who have trussed her up in a dungeon, is rated G for general audiences. It seems pitched to the 4-to-maybe-7-year-old set—we'd listened to the audiobook on a long drive last summer, and my 8-year-old dismissed the movie for seeming too babyish. Simon and his 6-year-old friend Charlotte, on the other hand, sat down in the theater with their cherry Slush Puppies and settled in for a good fairy tale.
Why, given this likely audience, did the moviemakers feel the need to include extended sequences with fear-pumping music; a giant menacing cat that charges after Despereaux in a gladiator ring; and Botticelli, the torture-obsessed leader of Rat World? And what's the point of a G rating if movies like Despereaux fall into that category? This movie confirms my feeling that it's past time to replace G with better age-tailored guidance. I remember sad G-rated kids' movies from childhood: Disney classics like Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi. But my kids didn't find Bambi distressing. Instead, what's hard for them to handle are new movies, ostensibly created for their age group, from which they emerge metaphorically dripping in sweat, wrung out by an hour and a half of suspense and overexcitement.
The official description of G from the Motion Picture Association of America is "[n]o nudity, no sex, no drugs, minimal violence, and limited use of language that goes beyond polite conversation." But surely G doesn't reliably make good on the promise of "minimal violence"—or at least not with any definition of violence that actually reflects what kids find disturbing. Despereaux is the latest in a line of recent examples that have unwound my kids or the kids of friends. (Other villains: Finding Nemo, for the barracuda * that eats the mom and most of the eggs; The Lion King, for Mufasa's murder; Cars, for the wildly fast-paced action; Swiss Family Robinson, for the pirates; Wall-E, for the landing of the spaceship and attempted shooting; and Monsters, Inc., for all the roaring at the outset.)
Perhaps the problem stems from the changing nature of animation. When Road Runner sends Coyote hurtling off a cliff, kids generally shrug off the calamity because they understand that the cartoon is all an utter fake, played for humor. Despereaux, by contrast, has the kind of Shrek-like animation that left Simon and Charlotte debating, in their after-movie analysis, whether the rats and mice were real. Simon thought maybe they were, because the eyes and claws looked lifelike. Charlotte thought not, but she wasn't completely sure, and, in any case, she found the head of Ratworld really creepy.
When the animals (and people) are animated with such technical skill that they look like they could come to life, some kids lose their tolerance for watching them hurt each other. This is one of the reasons that listening to Despereaux, the book, read aloud was charming while watching it unfold on the movie screen wasn't. At the movie's denouement (spoiler warning), the huge cat follows Botticelli into the mouth of a dark chest. The door shuts behind him; muffled whimpers and rattling can be heard within. At this point, Simon shut his eyes in addition to covering his ears, and from a few rows of ahead of us—at that exact torturous moment—we heard distressed cries of "No! No!" from another child in the audience. Botticelli was clearly the movie's bad guy, but that didn't mean kids wanted to watch torture inflicted on him barely off screen.
Complaints from parents about the MPAA's ratings are an old story. But most of the debate I've followed has been about how much sex and cursing should appear in a movie rated PG or R; hence the addition of the midway point, PG-13. When my kids are older, maybe I'll care about that, but at the moment, sex and profanity matter much less to me than suspense and violence in movies made for kids. And, historically speaking, the G rating has shifted meaning over time. From 1968, when the ratings system began, until the mid-1970s, as I learned from this helpful Wikipedia entry, G included "mildly adult mainstream films such as Airport, Planet of the Apes, and 2001: A Space Odyssey." Then it became the rating for kids' films, which means that "G-rated movies from the 1960s and 1970s have often been re-rated PG in later years." At the same time, however, violence in G-rated movies increased through the year 1999. Kimberly Thompson, the Harvard public health researcher who made that finding in a 2000 medical journal article, noted a "great variation in the amount of violence in these films ranging from 6 seconds to 24 minutes, with an average of 9.5 minutes of violent scenes." That's a lot of heart-thumping.
In a follow-up review four years later, Thompson found that the level of violence in G movies declined slightly from 2001 to 2004. (Though that's not the case for PG and PG-13 movies, in which sex and violence increased.) And in the G movies, animation often meant license to kill. Looking at 79 G-rated films released since 1992, 50 of them animated and 29 not, Thompson found that the cartoons had "a significantly higher content-based score for violence." Connect that to the lifelike animation in films like Despereaux, and it's clear why G is useless for shielding a child from distress or nightmares. As Thompson concludes, "the current rating system may provide a false sense of security about violent content in animated films."
Which explains why alternate rating systems have appeared on the scene. Thompson's article directed me to two: Kids-in-Mind and Screen It. You have to pay to join the second one—the sample reviews on the part of the site that I could see for free looked potentially useful, but they weren't obviously attached to a numbers-based rating score. Kids-in-Mind is free, well-organized, lists a substantial number of G-rated movies, and offers a three-part ratings score for sex/nudity, violence/gore, and profanity. I wasn't sure, though, about the reviewers' conclusions. Despereaux was rated 1.3.1, giving it a score of three out of 10 for violence/gore—the same or a lower score as movies my kids have watched serenely, like Babe, Curious George, The King and I, and Muppet Treasure Island. Maybe this is about the difference between quickie punches, kicks, and shootings, which my kids don't usually mind, and extended suspense, which keeps them up at night.
I'll go back to Kids-in-Mind for suggestions of movies with scores of 1 or 2 for violence—the "minimal" kind that the G rating is supposed to ensure. And I'll also pay closer attention to the notes reviewers write about kids' movies, like this one in the New York Times from Manohla Dargis: " 'The Tale of Despereaux' is rated G (General audiences). Some children and city-raised adults might find all the hungry, scurrying rats a bit (or very) creepy." That doesn't capture all my concerns about this mouse misadventure. But it's better than that bland and empty G.