'Paddington' film: Bring on the more restrictive rating

The 'Paddington' movie has been given a PG rating in Britain. Is that a bad thing for a lovable bear?

The headlines alone make you want to read the story, if not see the movie. Paddington — that cute, furry, mischief-making bear — has been deemed too hot for children.

Or, at least, containing "innuendo" that merits a parental guidance rating from the British Board of Film Classification, the country’s rating board.

In giving "Paddington," the hybrid CG-live action picture the more restrictive rating, the group noted that  “parents should consider whether content may upset younger, or more sensitive, children” and also cited "dangerous behavior,” “mild threat” and “mild bad language."

Poor Paddington. Poor, lovable Paddington.

The news has sent the fur flying for many parties, particularly Paddington Bear series author Michael Bond. The 88-year-old scribe told the Daily Mail, ”I’m totally amazed. I’d be very upset. I might not sleep well tonight,” adding “I can’t imagine what the sex references are.”

It’s hard to know if the film, which opens next week in Britain and next year in the U.S., does contain enough dicey material to push it that way (the board cites scenes of taxidermy and some violence as well as a cross-dressing man who flirts with the bear). Mostly, though, the debate isn’t about that. Mostly, the narrative plays into our sense that society is getting more prudish. "How can they find objectionable what we all love as kids?” is the subtextual question we find ourselves asking. Everywhere we go, the culture warriors are judging what we see, and movie rating boards are no different.

Of course, off-color humor, or at least a little something for the grown-ups, is common in kids movies, and has turned fare as different as “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and “Frozen” into PG films (not to mention into films more tolerable for adults). These movies are given a designation stricter than a G not because some scold thinks the world is going to seed but because there’s enough in there that should give parents of young children pause (or, in this case, yeah, paws).

But these days, pressure from a film’s distributor, and a strategic tweak or two, tends to lead to a family film that would otherwise be landing a PG to get in under the wire for a G. A PG rating is presumed to hurt a family movie’s prospects, and studios want to avoid anything that can damage its chances. So we end up with a lot of gently-rated movies that are, in fact, right on the border.

The same thing happens on the other end of the spectrum with superhero and other genre tentpoles. The thought of a superhero movie landing an R is too much to stand. So movies that should by all rights be given an R — from this weekend’s “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part I” to the collected oeuvre of Zack Snyder — come in just under the wire for a PG-13. Seemingly every PG-13 film these days is a borderline case. After a while that starts to mean that the ratings no longer accurately reflect those films and, over time, also get genuinely PG-13 films caught up unfairly in their stigma.

Bond and distributors no doubt fret that the “Paddington” rating will keep parents of younger children away, and some critics will wonder more broadly about whether our culture has defined "adult content" down. But I wonder if it’s not the opposite: With every kids movie that contains some adult content landing the G rating and every violent superhero film landing a PG-13 one, we’ve actually defined it up, so that there’s really no difference between a movie that contains some adult content and one that doesn’t, and thus little value in the rating in the first place. If the only movie that gets a restrictive rating is one that self-consciously revels in it — say, a “Ted” — then the ratings stop meaning much at all.

“Paddington” hasn't been screened for the media in the U.S. yet, so it's tough to say specifically whether it should have been one of the family films pushed up to PG. Then again, Bond hasn't seen it either and seems to be reacting more broadly to the idea that his lovable stuffed bear could be classified with a (slightly) more restrictive rating. But lovable creatures can be PG too. And as a general matter, the idea of a kids film now and then getting a PG is, far from an apocalyptic thing, actually good for the larger system.

The rating for “Paddington” in the U.S. has not yet been assigned. But the film is being released by Harvey Weinstein, the man at the center of "Bully," "The King's Speech" and "Philomena" rating controversies in recent years. One requires little guidance to realize the headlines we could soon have here.

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