The “101 Dalmatians” live-action prequel in theaters and on
+ on Friday is rated PG-13, taking the prized Disney property out of G territory for the first time in its 60-year screen history. Cruella, the skunk-haired villain with a taste for puppy fur, has finally run the kid-friendly rating under the wheels of her Coupe de Ville en route to the box office.
Disney’s choice to ditch young audiences for a Cruella origin story set in 1970s punk rock London marks the Disney brand’s third PG-13 release since last year—one of its biggest flurries of PG-13 movies to date—and delivers a blow to the rating on which it built its reputation. Much of Hollywood already has abandoned G and PG for PG-13. Disney was a holdout, and while it embraced PG films with success, it rarely dipped into the PG-13 realm.
Rival studios have been gravitating away from the G rating for years. When DreamWorks Animation released “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” in 2002, its first movie in the “Spirit” horse adventure series, the movie was rated G. But now that wild mustang runs with a different crowd: the new movie “Spirit Untamed,” out on June 4, is rated PG.
The Motion Picture Association, which assigns ratings to films, said its calls are determined by a board of parents who weigh factors like violence, profanity and nudity. The MPA said raters must have children between the ages of 5 and 15 when they begin the job, leave the post once their youngest child turns 21 and serve on the board for no longer than seven years. The group added that the board chair and some senior members are exempt from these rules.
“The truth is that G probably feels just a little too young,” said Kristin Lowe, chief creative officer for features at DreamWorks Animation. “You want things in there that are appealing to the parents as well and have a little edge.”
As G movies were regularly bested at the North American box office by PG, PG-13 and R titles, the ranks of the tamest family films thinned. There were 110 G-movie releases from 2000 to 2009, but just 71 G-rated films from 2010 to 2019, according to media analyst Comscore, which at the request of The Wall Street Journal compiled data from all movies with ratings that reported grosses from 1990 to the start of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, PG-13 exploded as a catchall category. That’s thanks largely to Marvel, a division of Disney that specializes in blockbusters with violence but no sex or nudity. While R movies made more money than any other ratings group in the 1990s—and still lead in terms of the sheer volume of films—by the 2000s, PG-13 reigned supreme at the box office. Between 2010 and 2019, PG-13 movies grossed $54.6 billion, according to Comscore, more than double the $24.3 billion for PG movies and $26.5 billion for R movies. G-rated movies comprised a sliver of the 2010 to 2019 market, making $2.7 billion, down from $4.7 billion the previous decade.
“The G rating for most movies in today’s world is generally the kiss of death,” said
the senior media analyst at Comscore. “The recipe for success is to have your film rated PG-13.”
A G film is intended for general audiences. PG warns that some material may not be suitable for children and suggests parental guidance. PG-13 strongly cautions parents that some content may be inappropriate for kids under 13. In general, using the F-word twice, or once as a verb, turns a PG-13 movie into an R.
Today, even 8-year-olds don’t want to be considered little kids. The strict content parameters that come with G movies can make those films seem too mild, and studios want to signal that adults might enjoy children’s movies, too. Streaming platforms offer options for young viewers, leaving more room at theaters for teens and 20-somethings who have shown that if they like a movie, they will go see it again and again.
The outlier is Pixar, also owned by Disney, whose G-rated movies are often box-office giants. “Toy Story 4” was the highest grossing G movie of 2019 at $434 million. That said, many recent Pixar hits are PG, including the 2021 Oscar-winner “Soul.”
The next big G movie is in theaters this August: “PAW Patrol: The Movie,” based on the TV series.
Much more goes into the success of a movie than ratings, whose standards are constantly shifting with the times. Bambi’s mom got shot to death in the 1942 classic, but the movie is still rated G. Ratings remain key for marketing, with filmmakers adding or cutting content to land in the zone desired by movie executives. Studios do not decide ratings but make the creative choices that do.
Stephen Herek, who directed the G-rated 1996 “101 Dalmatians” live-action remake, said his target audience was never in doubt. “Movies like that for Disney, you had to get a G no matter what,” he said, adding that he cut some violent slapstick after parents complained in focus groups that it would scare their children. “I have to admit, we pushed the boundaries a bit.”
Disney declined requests for comment on this story.
The PG-13 rating signals a cultural shift around family entertainment. “We have more highly involved parents now who are helicoptering over their kids’ media choices,” said Betsy Bozdech, executive editor at Common Sense Media, which recommends age-appropriate family entertainment. Media savvy adults are quick to object to questionable content, so if a movie is rated PG-13, no parent can say they weren’t warned. “Studios don’t want to make people angry. There’s a little bit more of a, ‘Well, now it’s your problem.’”
Last year, “Mulan” became Disney’s first live-action PG-13 remake of a G movie. Disney also released “Hamilton” last year as a PG-13 rated film after cutting some expletives.
Audiences might find “Cruella” surprisingly tame, once they get around the brand’s original premise about an insane puppy killer. The studio is still playing to kids, selling “Cruella” stuffed animals and a $42.99 “Cruella” skirt and top outfit for ages four and up. Yet the film is edgy enough that when a dog swallows Cruella’s necklace, viewers may wonder if a Dalmatian is actually going to get disemboweled on screen. (It won’t. No dogs are harmed or show up dead in coat form or otherwise, though there are threats.)
The script for “Cruella,” directed by “I, Tonya” filmmaker Craig Gillespie, is in some ways not nearly as harsh as the “101 Dalmatians” screenplays that preceded it. Consider Cruella’s explicit puppy death threats in the 1961 animated original: “Poison them, drown them, bash them in the head,” she rages. “You got any chloroform? I don’t care how you kill the little beasts, but do it, and do it now!”
In the 1996 “101 Dalmatians,” a comically ghoulish Cruella played by Glenn Close delivers lines that are the stuff of nightmares. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to ruin your little puppy coat,” she says as she stabs hay bales with a pitchfork in search of hidden dogs. “I’m just going to make a few button holes.”
This weekend, Kathleen Hackett may stream “Cruella” with her sons, ages 8 and 11. But the PG-13 rating is not what she anticipated, so she wants to do some research first. The mom from Alameda, Calif., said she expects her boys will be able to handle the movie, even though their puppy Rocky is close to Cruella’s preferred color scheme, all black fur with a touch of white.
“The story is so kind of out there,” she said. “We can easily talk about how Rocky is not in any danger of getting kidnapped by an evil villain.”
Write to Ellen Gamerman at [email protected]
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