PG films aren’t what they used to be. Although the Motion Picture Association of America still stamps PG on films for which parents are urged to give parental guidance (MPAA, 2017), PGs are now far tamer than they were and possess the feel of a “General Audience” category (at least, in comparison to what they used to be like).
It doesn’t make sense. In this time of greater body awareness and desensitization to physical trauma, we’d imagine films would reflect life (or is that the other way around?). However, the blunt truth is most film companies are now more sensitive than ever to cultural boundaries.
It wasn’t always the case. Up until 1984, there was no PG-13 rating, meaning an 8-year-old could potentially watch something that today’s 14-year-olds would be quite happy to sit through. Good or bad? You decide.
The MPAA reportedly issued the first PG-13 in the same year to a film called Red Dawn. The category was added to indicate film content with a “higher level of intensity” than PG. But it took a few years for the Board to catch up with what was being made, and for a while, no one was totally clear on the criteria.
Good news for us. While PG-13 took hold of the mild flesh, gore, and young-adult themes that left PG a watered-down soup, the legacy of before still remains. Here are 15 PG movies from the pre-PG-13 days that young kids today wouldn’t be allowed to watch.
15 Who Framed Roger Rabbit, 1988
Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the American live-action-mixed-with-animation film, was released to critical acclaim the world over. This movie is not only supremely entertaining “but a breakthrough in craftsmanship,” The Chicago Sun-Times remarked. The movie was directed by Robert Zemeckis, produced by Frank Marshall and Robert Watts, and stars Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd, among a host of others.
Almost as a forerunner to the adult humor of Toy Story and the like, Who Framed Roger Rabbit includes many a reference to the seedy underworld of the 1940s. The story follows private detective Eddie Valiant, who must prove Roger Rabbit is not guilty of killing a well-off businessman. With screenplay jokes such as “The problem is I got a fifty-year-old lust and a three-year-old dinky,” repeated use of the words, “sugar daddy,” and Jessica’s eye-popping cleavage, it probably wouldn’t make PG today.
14 Ghostbusters, 1984
Exemplified by the fact that the remake in 2016 was labeled PG-13, the original – a PG – was anything but. Most of us now realize how inappropriate the film is throughout, despite its huge entertainment value. Dr. Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) waking up to a ghost performing fellatio on him was probably enough for most parents to remove their kids from the theatre and take them to an ice-cream parlor instead. But the film keeps on delivering the goods.
There’s swearing throughout and references to sex, alcohol, and smoking. What’s more, the possessed Dana (Sigourney Weaver) utters the words "I want you inside me" to Venkman (Bill Murray) toward the end of the film. In truth, all that matters, though, is that Ghostbusters garnered a record number of positive reviews from both critics and audiences and is still considered by many as one of the best films of 1984.
13 Gremlins, 1984
Directed by Joe Dante and released by Warner Bros., Gremlins is a comedy-horror from 1984. The film is “about a young man who receives a strange creature called a mogwai as a pet, which then spawns other creatures who transform into small, destructive, evil monsters” (IMDb, 2017). This is one of Steven Spielberg's more explicit and hard-edged offerings to the world of cinema and is widely considered to have led to the PG-13 rating coming into force.
After all, the film is chock full of terror and gore, with one of the Gremlins exploding inside a microwave and others simply being beheaded. Let's not forget, as well, the father of Kate Beringer (played by Phoebe Cates) ending up stuck in a chimney in a Santa costume before dying and decomposing. There may not be any sexual references in Gremlins, but the rest of it is enough to give a kid nightmares.
12 Jaws, 1975
Based on Peter Benchley’s thriller of the same name, Jaws was another Spielberg nasty which should never have been a PG. The story follows the sheriff of a fictional New England town called Amity Island. In the surrounding waters, a giant man-eating shark lurks before chasing unsuspecting swimmers as though it had a grudge against spindly teenagers. The film stars Richard Dreyfuss as oceanographer Matt Hooper, Robert Shaw as shark hunter Quint, and Roy Scheider as police chief Martin Brody.
Jaws was a critical success and still is, but some of the scenes were totally inappropriate for kids. Take for instance the decomposing face in the hull of the abandoned ship and the blood spilling around the decks of Quint’s boat The Orca, not to mention the severed limbs floating up to the surface of the sea. All this wrapped up in a suspense-driven Adult Fear and Animal Nemesis trope film.
11 Sixteen Candles, 1984
Sixteen Candles is a kitsch comedy romance written and directed by John Hughes. It centers on the story of sixteen-year-old Samantha, who “has a crush on the most popular boy in school, and the geekiest boy in school has a crush on her” (IMDb, 2017). Cue teenage coming-of-age storyline! The film is a typical account of the turmoil of teenage years and was considered one of the best films of 1984, according to listal.com.
However, Hughes’s comedy, if released today, wouldn't be stamped with PG. Not only does it include a full-frontal of Haviland Morris, but so too is it full of adult language most of the way through. There are sex-crazed teenagers in abundance and even a dollop of racism. In fact, the film was slammed for its “potentially offensive stereotype” of Asian people (The New York Times, 1984).
10 Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981
Another of Steven Spielberg’s darker productions, Raiders of the Lost Ark is an action adventure written by Lawrence Kasdan and produced by Frank Marshall. It was the first film in the Indiana Jones franchise and, some say, the best. The film was highly acclaimed by critics and audiences and was subsequently nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in 1982. Rolling Stone magazine described the film as “the ultimate Saturday action matinee–a film so funny and exciting it can be enjoyed any day of the week.”
But in terms of a PG, this film pushed boundaries, albeit with style. It's widely regarded as the most violent of all the films to date and for good reason. There are headshots with massive blood loss, Nazis dismembered by plane propellers, melting faces, and exploding heads. It might be an ultimate Saturday night movie, but we still wonder whether it’s suitable for a toddler.
9 Beetlejuice, 1988
The 1988 film Beetlejuice directed by Tim Burton and produced by The Geffen Film Company focuses on a young couple (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) who recently died and have turned into ghosts. Good start for the little ones. However, the story surrounding them is thoughtful and touching: a young couple maintains vigil in their house after death, even though they're subsequently bothered by a bad spirit called Betelgeuse (Beetlejuice).
But this film doesn’t turn out to be the fluffy feel-good drama you might have expected (after all, Tim Burton is involved). There are more frightening spirits, some headless, and one undead ghost played by Michael Keaton - a bizarre sex offender. The MPAA rated the film PG even though Betelgeuse himself is seen swearing and cupping his genitals in one of the scenes. What must parents have thought?!
8 Arthur, 1981
Arthur is an American comedy film written and directed by Steve Gordon and released in the heyday of Dudley Moore’s movie career. Moore plays Arthur Bach, “a drunken New York City millionaire who is on the brink of an arranged marriage to a wealthy heiress” (IMDb, 2017). He ends up falling in love with a girl from Queens, way below his “station.” It received critical acclaim after its release, which is more than can be said for Arthur 2: On the Rocks – a film which Moore disowned.
Then labeled a PG, Arthur wouldn’t be so easily categorized today. The script is full of sexual innuendos and adult humor - which is no bad thing - but its other focus on alcoholism is more difficult to swallow. The film focusses heavily on the effect Arthur’s drinking has on life (sometimes good, sometimes bad), and there's one scene in which he lies in bed next to a prostitute. Naughty!
7 Swamp Thing, 1982
Swamp Thing was written and directed by the ultra-talented Wes Craven. The superhero science-fiction horror film was based on the DC Comics character of the same name. The film follows the story of a scientist whose experiments are interfered with, causing him to become a hideous swamp-dwelling monster. The main plot consists of the Man on Fire trope, which comes about after Alec Holland (Ray Wise), having doused himself in an experimental juice, runs into the swamp to rid himself of it.
Featuring nude dancers and Adrienne Barbeau, the movie-savvy among us might be able to fill in the gaps. Barbeau (Alice Cable) is famed for showing off her assets, and she's true to form in Swamp Thing. Boobs are always an especially popular subject for young boys, and seeing Adrienne Barbeau wash up in a foggy swamp must have been the highlight of the movie.
6 Barbarella, 1968
This 1968 science-fiction film directed by Roger Vadim was inspired by the popular French comic Barbarella. The plot follows a woman called Barbarella (Jane Fonda) -- a member of the United Earth government -- on her quest to find and capture mad scientist Durand Durand whose experiments into ray-gun use could spell the end of the world. It was especially popular in the United Kingdom, where it was the second-highest grossing film of the year after The Jungle Book.
The '60s was a period of open sexuality and self-expression, but should children have been party to the same? A striptease by Fonda at the start of the film and a scene in which Duran Duran plays music on his “Excessive Machine” are definitely not child-friendly. Fonda’s expressions while being “played” with would suggest she’s enjoying something more in keeping with an Orgasmatron.
5 Airplane, 1980
One of a series of epic comedy parodies of the disaster movies of the '80s, Airplane was immensely popular when it was released. It was directed and written by David and Jerry Zucker as well as Jim Abrahams and produced by Jon Davison. It has Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen, and many others featured among its talented cast.
The humor is fast-paced and relies on a lot of adult gags. For what was a PG film (it hasn’t been re-submitted) the content is surprisingly burlesque in nature. Featured is a woman in a tight t-shirt with her breasts bouncing up and down, a simulated oral-sex act of the auto-pilot by flight attendant Elaine (Julie Hagerty), Captain Oveur (Peter Graves) asking a little boy visiting the cockpit if he has "ever seen a grown man naked,” and much, much more. That said, it's under-entertaining.
4 The Bad News Bears, 1976
Directed by Michael Ritchie, this American sports comedy stars Walter Matthau and Tatum O'Neal. It's quite a charming movie for kids with Walter Matthau at his absolute best as the grumbling beer-guzzling former minor-league pitcher. Film review site Rotten Tomatoes raved about it, remarking that the film was “rude, profane, and cynical, but shot through with honest, unforced humor, and held together by a deft, understated performance from Walter Matthau.”
But the messages of the film were suspect for children of the '70s and wouldn’t be anywhere near as well received these days. An underage Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley) chain-smokes cigarettes, while Tanner Boyle spouts constant swear words, not forgetting, of course, Walter Matthau’s character of Morris Buttermaker attempting to pitch a ball while drunk. We can’t imagine such a film being made today and being listed as PG.
3 Garbage Pail Kids, 1987
The premise of the Garbage Pail Kids Movie should've sounded alarms for those who loved cabbage patch dolls. The film is based on a then-popular series of children's trading cards that parodied the popular children’s doll craze of the '80s. Each card featured a character with a lewd or gross habit or abnormality. Nice going. The Garbage Pail kids were disgusting affronts to fake humanity with names like Valerie Vomit and Foul Phil (therobotsvoice.com, 2017).
If that wasn’t bad enough, the film has since been touted as the worst film ever made, and it barely made back its $1m budget. This may have something to do with the special effects or the way the characters were portrayed. But in any case, kids going to see this movie would've been subjected to almost two hours of soulless rubber-faced dolls doing gross things to each other. It would probably have scarred most who went to see it.
2 Mommie Dearest, 1981
Biographical films about people who have had a bad upbringing are probably best avoided if you’re thinking of producing a film for kids. Most of the time, there's very little to redeem the abuser and even less hope for the victim. However, that’s exactly what director Frank Perry and Paramount pictures did, regardless of the effect it might have had on young audiences. Mommie Dearest recounts the life of Christina Crawford, who was believed to have been abused by her adoptive mother when she was a little girl.
Throughout the film, Joan Crawford, the adoptive mother in question, enforces a very stern code of denial and discipline. On many occasions, she's seen abusing her daughter physically. At one point, she cuts off chunks of Christina's hair to humiliate her, then throttles her on a bathroom floor and beats her with a wire hanger. In terms of setting an example for the future, this film doesn’t seem to have a place in any category.
1 Poltergeist, 1982
Directed by Tobe Hooper – who directed Texas Chain Saw Massacre – Poltergeist was always going to be a film to give adults nightmares; but what was it doing to the kids? Based in a fictional California suburb, the plot centers on a quiet family whose home is haunted by malevolent ghosts, eventually leading to the abduction of the family's younger daughter to the spirit realm.
The film is full of proper horror tropes, not something that a company like Disney would dish up. There are threats to the young girl from dark corners, cupboards, and under her bed. There's the hallucination of maggots crawling over raw meat, leading an investigator to tear the flesh from his face. In fact, the fear factor of this movie was so great that the MPAA initially rated it R; that was, until the makers pleaded with the association to reduce it to a PG. And there it stuck forever more.
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