Despite a tepid critical reception and less than stellar word of mouth, there’s no doubt that Cars 2 is a hit. It’s one of Pixar’s biggest openings ever, and seems likely to continue to bring in a bunch of counterprogramming money against the PG-13 rated Transformers: Dark Of The Moon next week. As a G-rated film, one would expect it to do well against the more teen- and adult-oriented movies in the marketplace, but that doesn’t mean it’s uncontroversial; there’s a fair amount of audience and critical response indicating that perhaps the film isn’t actually as appropriate for all ages as the rating might indicate.
The MPAA has come across plenty of criticism of late for such flubs as initially rating Blue Valentine NC-17, or rating a truly wonderful film like The King’s Speech R for a space of 20 second’s worth of therapeutic profanity. In a flip on the usual formula, though, most of the criticism in the case of Cars 2 is that it might have gotten the benefit of the Pixar doubt in terms of its rating, and that the violence contained therein should’ve bumped it up to a PG (as The Incredibles and Up was). Some SPOILERS will follow.
According to the MPAA’s own website:
A G-rated motion picture contains nothing in theme, language, nudity, sex, violence or other matters that, in the view of the Rating Board, would offend parents whose younger children view the motion picture.[...] Depictions of violence are minimal.
That’s a fairly remarkable way to describe Cars 2, which features a couple of gunfights (Mater is equipped with gatling guns and occasionally uses them accidentally, firing at a group of villains), a “fistfight” in a bathroom in which an American spy car is roughed up, a James Bond-like deathtrap where two cars are tied to clock gears and left to await their death by crushing, and, most controversially, a torture scene where a car is burned alive from the inside until he finally explodes. (The explosion is not explicitly shown, but is reflected in the glass of a television camera.) There are a few other deaths in the film, including one death by falling which leaves the car’s “body parts” floating on the surface of the ocean; another spy is introduced to the audience by showing his “corpse,” which has been crushed into a cube by a compactor. It's all played fairly fanbelt-in-cheek, but that's probably small consolation to the kids who run from the theaters crying.
The reaction to all this has been predictably shaky, with 80% of “parents & educators” at the advocacy site Common Sense Media chiming in to say that the violence in the film was “an issue” for them. My old co-worker at CNET, Molly Wood, reported that her four-year-old wanted to leave the theater early due to a late-film plot piece where Lightning McQueen is thought to have been killed and was terrified by a scene where Mater is almost gassed. Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune calls the rating “the MPAA’s latest pratfall.” Today even ran a whole story on the issue, and some irate parents have even taken to posting on Craigslist to express their displeasure.
I have to admit that I don’t often think of the differences between G and PG-ratings, not having any children to worry about, but it is a little weird that a movie with this much gunfire and explosions could slide through as a G-rated film. The Incredibles certainly deserved its PG-rating, as actual human characters met their end in fireballs and children were shot at in that film, but does Cars get a pass simply because its protagonists aren’t human? Even when they act and talk like humans, and like in a human-like world? Or is it, more generally, a pass for the Disney/Pixar machine? I generally don't get too "think of the children!" when it comes to films, but even I would have a hard time recommending the movie for, say, five or six-year-olds.