Kids flicks losing their innocence
A shotgun-wielding hunter mercilessly pursues his target. Angry space aliens vaporize a defenseless town. A bloodthirsty shark preys on the weak and tiny.
These movie scenes aren't from the latest action thrillers -- they're from G-rated animated films like Disney's new "Chicken Little."
As pop culture mimics today's permissive social values, violence and veiled sexual references have crept into the seemingly innocent cartoon landscape, giving parents new reason to do research beyond the ratings.
It's not that the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board has become more permissive, said MPAA president Dan Glickman: "It's bound to be a reflection of society."
It's also a reflection of movie studios following the formula of hits like the "Toy Story" and "Shrek" films, whose sophisticated scripts include plenty of subtle jokes aimed at adults.
So the octopus-armed alien robots in "Chicken Little," who shred a cornfield and use their laser-gaze to zap away the town's animal citizens, are just typical cartoon characters. The film's allusion to "Girls Gone Wild" is just another cultural reference. The melons held chest-high by the heroine in "Wallace & Gromit" are just large pieces of fruit.
"Everybody is trying to reach out to as wide an audience as possible," said Disney spokesman Dennis Rice. "It may have some adult humor that goes over the heads of other audiences, but it's never so colorful that it would affect the MPAA and how they rate the movie."
Historically, Daffy Duck took many a shotgun blast from Elmer Fudd. But as animation techniques become more sophisticated and cartoons speak to audiences of all ages, the animated world looks more like reality, said Elayne Rapping, professor of film history and theory at the University of Buffalo.
"We become increasingly desensitized, so movies have to be more and more viscerally exciting," she said.
A series of university studies confirms that violence has increased during the history of animated G-rated films. In one study, more than half of all G-rated animated features showed characters using alcohol or tobacco. These movies also are likely to contain more violent content than their live-action counterparts.
Glickman said the MPAA ratings system is "somewhat subjective."
A G rating means the movie is "good for all audiences," but not all parents have the same values, so the definition of "offensive" can vary wildly.
Non-profit Common Sense Media and similar organizations, such as Parent Previews and Kids-in-Mind, offer their own ratings systems.
They note the potential scariness of sharp-toothed sharks in "Finding Nemo," for example, and warn parents of the bawdy humor and armed hunter in "Wallace & Gromit." Both films earned G ratings.
Children learn just as much from animated features as they do from other media, said Kimberly Thompson, author of the Harvard studies.
"All media are educational. The only question is what they are teaching," she said. "Kids are sponges. They don't make this artificial distinction between entertainment and education."