Last year I purchased a kids’ movie (rated PG for “momentary language”) based on a book that I read and loved as a child, and have read over and over with my daughter especially. I figured the movie was based on such a fantastic book that it was a pretty sure bet, and in general I handle the language question by simply telling my kids “that’s a grown-up word” and that they should never use it upon pain of death or removal of all Legos/art supplies (half kidding). I sat down to watch it with my kids (ages 5 and 7), and here’s what we saw:
Within the first twenty minutes alone, we watched a little girl’s frightening, dramatic mid-night ride to the hospital, we met a sweet, sick old woman who was also staying in the hospital, whose room proves to be empty the next day because she had died, and our young female heroine is driven home from the hospital next to a live chicken, who she is harshly informed will be that night’s dinner.
Next we meet the “bad guy” who is sneaking around taking photos (to dark, dramatic music, naturally), a group of girls who couldn’t be older than ten talking about another boy having “charisma”; we see some classic snarky (dare I say ‘bitchy’?) ‘mean girl’ behavior, as well as harsh taunting during the dinner scene, where one girl eats the chicken (as the rest refuse), and where the presiding adult says nothing.
Later we have an adult drinking alcohol, one of said under-ten girls doing the arms-around-the-back mock make-out maneuver while wearing the aforementioned boozing adult’s bra, the “bad guy” lasciviously ogling a nun, another under-ten girl flirting with the charismatic boy, three uses of the word “idiot,” the boy dangling a live, struggling mouse in front of a snake and a shot of a little guillotine intended to decapitate the doomed mouse.
Next, a little girl falls into a river (with lots of splashing and struggling and gulping and again, the dramatic music), there’s a scene with a very “Coming to America” sort of stereotypical African couple, then one where an old man grabs the butt of a young female Asian performer. Then our young heroine and the charismatic boy are kidnapped and tied up in a locked truck during a thunderstorm. It goes on from there, but that’s probably enough, huh? My kids had thrown in the towel about the time of the plunge into the river (I’m sorry I let them get that far). I was so flabbergasted that I continued watching and took notes.
Have you guessed the movie yet? Yes folks, this is the film adaptation of Ludwig Bemelmans’ beloved “Madeline.” Adaptation is a bit of a stretch, me thinks. I think they took a sweet, innocent book and added every lowest common denominator trick they could to over-dramatize, sexualize and scarify a mildly dramatic story, which if you ask me, could still have been interesting, engaging and funny. (Frances McDormand was awesome, of course.) So how would a Red Pill Parent know what this movie had in store for their kids?
Well, Turner Classic Movies calls it an “endearing family film.” Netflix states, “This movie is: Feel-Good, Goofy.” The MPAA rated it PG for “momentary language.” Hmm. OK so what I’m wondering is, where’s the part about death, bullying, alcohol, animal cruelty, racial and gender stereotyping, misogyny, sexual abuse and kidnapping? My kids saw things in this endearing family film that I hope they never see again, and if they do, I hope they never model and/or tolerate. Plus, the film completely passed over so many opportunities to guide kids in some of these areas. Death is not something we should shield our children from, but when Madeline finds out the old woman died, she reacts stoically, with not a tear or a question for Miss Clavel that kids can identify with or learn anything from. The film very pointedly does not show Madeline’s scar, which is odd since this is such a defining element of the original story. By what logic does this film illicit fear and suspense with an ambulance ride, but then deliberately choose not to show the undramatic realities of a hospital stay, such as a scar, and an IV? There’s nothing wrong with children knowing where their food comes from, but do Madeline (and the movie’s viewers) need to find out that chicken is indeed chicken with the single barked word: “Dinner!”? Do we really want to condone taunting and mean girl behavior by showing a scene where an adult is present but only shrugs and shakes her head? Does any child need to witness a man undressing a woman with his eyes, or grabbing her butt? What possible narrative requirement does this serve in a movie adapted from a children’s book, and meant to appeal to that book’s same audience?
I thought “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” might be cute, too. And I saw “The Rescuers” as a child and thought my kids might enjoy that as well. Once again, lessons learned! And the biggest lesson is this: MPAA movie ratings don’t even tell half the story: maybe 5%.
Fortunately, there are other organizations that provide a bit more information; but you definitely have to seek them out, and even they might not catch everything you’re concerned about. And of course what you see in the newspaper listings or on movie listing sites is only going to be the MPAA Ratings — which won’t cut it if you really want to know what kind of content is in these films. It’s in the best interest of the movie industry to keep films open to as many viewers as possible, so they’re not going to take a particularly exclusionary stance with respect to age-appropriateness ratings. Plus, it’s arguable that our culture (including its children) is so desensitized to violence, overt sexuality and hyper-drama that it barely registers – it’s just considered normal and entertaining. I think a reversal of this trend would result in a far more gentle, respectful society, but that’s another post (or twelve). Suffice it to say, those of us who do not wish for our children to be exposed or desensitized to this type of content face an uphill battle, and must rely on resources beyond the MPAA ratings to help us find stuff we’d be happy to let our kids watch. Though not ideal (in my humble opinion) here are some other resources (please note, I saved the best for last, if you want to skip ahead):
Parents Television Council — Their Movie Ratings are broken down by Sex, Violence, Language and Behavior, with details for each of these areas. Their database is small, however, and did not include “Madeline” or “The Rescuers.” In their review of “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” the Behavior category said “None” — where I, on the other hand, thought all the pool-side Hollywood-sassy, blingy-rich consumerist behavior was shallow, inane and disgusting.
Kids In Mind — This site, which rates on a 1-10 scale for Sex & Nudity, Violence & Gore and Profanity, appears to be struggling, and admits that any reviews prior to 1998 will not be as stringent as after. ”Madeline” was released in 1998, so I don’t know if their review was written before or after that change. In any case, again, we have notification of the usual offensivities (my word), but nothing about how elements of “Madeline,” for instance, can traumatize your kids into a fortnight’s worth of nightmares, or model and therefore condone worse behavior than that displayed by that rotten 4th grader that rides in the back of their bus. This site had a good bit of elaboration about the specifics of “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” however: I give them props for that. And they relate the “message” of films; in BHC’s case: “Discover your integrity and that of your pets. Pet ownership is a lasting commitment that requires research and thought.” Intended message, yes. But the overall message? It’s fun to be rich and silly, and my mom must think I won’t be scared by a dogfight.
Parent Previews — Hmm. Well, considering this is what they had to say about “Madeline,” I’m not an immediate fan: “this film … through an intelligent script and compelling images of Paris and France, does a remarkable job of making the little Madeline look and feel like the story from which she was born.” This may not be their editorial, of course. Their reviews are simply plot synopses, but the Content Details get into the nitty gritty a bit more. Still, the categories are for Violence, Sexual Content, Language and Drugs/Alcohol. Not a comprehensive list of things to watch out for, if you ask me. No review for “The Rescuers.”
Common Sense Media — In general, I love Common Sense Media, as they are a great resource about the whole relationship between media and children, with lots of research and coverage of all types of media, not just movies. It’s a definite Red Pill Parent bookmark. However, their movie review section still left me unsatisfied. A section called What Parents Need to Know reads: “… there’s a kidnapping that younger children might find scary, and the overall absence of parents, Pepito’s parents are loving but rather neglectful, and Madeline is an orphan.” Again, as if that’s all you need to know. This does go beyond the typical bounds of Sex, Profanity & Violence, but still does not tell me what I want to know.
Screen It! — My favorite of all the sites I visited and reviewed in this category (for movie reviewing purposes), Screen It! offers 15 content categories which for each film are designated with None, Minor, Moderate, Heavy and Extreme, with a section on who the film’s role models are (interesting) as well as an Our Word To Parents section. Though, big surprise, they still didn’t entirely agree with my own assessment of “Madeline,” they do what they should do, which is not simply to agree with me, but rather to really lay out all that a parent might object to in a film shown to their kids, beyond the usual Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll (oops, wrong topic); I mean Sex, Violence & Profanity offensivity categories. This site gets my Red Pill Parent stamp of approval.
If you find any other resources that prove helpful in this regard, do let us know.