How 'Jack' hopped away with a PG rating

If there's one thing critics have agreed on this year, it's that "Kangaroo Jack" -- made by Castle Rock and distributed by Warner Bros. -- is a forgettable movie. Although the movie has made $35 million over the last 10 days, reviewers have dismissed the film as a "witless escapade" and "a numskull comedy," with one depressed scribe saying that it "left me wanting to kill myself."

The critics agree on another point: The PG-rated comedy, which revolves around two bumbling crooks trying to retrieve $50,000 in mob money from a kangaroo in the Australian Outback, is profoundly unsuitable for young kids. The Jerry Bruckheimer-produced movie includes a scene in which heat-dazed crooks Jerry O'Connell and Anthony Anderson spot supermodel Estella Warren, playing a wildlife conservationist, standing before them. As the Washington Post's Desson Howe describes it, "Thinking she's a mirage, [O'Connell] clamps both his hands on her breasts and declares, 'Hey, these feel so real!' " There's also a testicle joke, a wet tank-top scene with Warren under a waterfall, a chase sequence with shotgun fire and a scene where a villain puts a knife at O'Connell's throat and snarls, "I'm going to carve you up piece by piece."

Would it come as a shock if I told this you this movie has been advertised every morning on Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network and other children's TV outlets?

Many parents have written in to ask: How on earth did this film get a PG rating? And why do Warner Bros.' TV spots sell it as a cute-talking kangaroo movie, when the kangaroo talks in only one scene? Having seen the movie, I'm with them. "I was really upset by the violence and sexual innuendo," said one mother who took her 7-year-old daughter to see the film. "I'd read a bad review, but it didn't say there was anything offensive in the film, and the commercials were running on Nick Jr., so I thought it must be a family film."

Peter Greene, a media-savvy parent with a son approaching his seventh birthday, complained via e-mail: "What upsets me here is that Castle Rock (one of whose partners just happens to be Rob Reiner), Jerry Bruckheimer and Warner Bros. Pictures all worked together to make sure the film received a PG rating, knowing it was the only so-called family film released over the holiday weekend. We all know if it was rated PG-13 it wouldn't have done as well at the box office. The person I am most disappointed in is Rob Reiner, who is a champion of many kids' causes."

Reiner, who spearheaded the 1998 campaign to pass Proposition 10, which funds early childhood development programs, didn't respond to my interview request, leaving it to a spokesman to explain that he had nothing to do with the making of the film.

However, Greene's complaint about the rating is right on the money. The PG rating, which has been assigned to such films as "Shrek," "Stuart Little" and "Spy Kids," supposedly offers a clear signal to parents that they can safely take their kids to a movie without subjecting them to sex, violence or gross humor.

As Bruckheimer acknowledged: "We had to get that rating. The PG was incredibly important."

To understand how a movie with an actress who ranked No. 1 on Maxim's Hot Babe List ended up being advertised on "SpongeBob," we need to retrace the fascinating history of "Kangaroo Jack."

The film was the brainchild of "Con Air" screenwriter Scott Rosenberg and "Missing in Action" co-creator Steve Bing, who is best known, alas, for getting his girlfriend, Elizabeth Hurley, pregnant. As Rosenberg recalls, "We were drinking in a bar when Steve told me the story as if it had really happened to these two guys and I said, 'That's the greatest idea in the world. Let's sell it.' It ended up being the highest-selling comedy pitch ever." Originally titled "Down and Under," the script was designed as a cool "Midnight Run"-style mob comedy, with plenty of thrills and sexy action for its teenage core audience. The kangaroo was a minor character.

Bruckheimer, who is Disney Studios' top producer, outbid a host of rivals. "I loved the idea," he recalls. "It was interesting, clever and I hadn't seen a film with a kangaroo in years." There was just one glitch. Then-Disney studio chief Joe Roth, believing mob comedies were passe, passed on the project. So Bruckheimer took it to Castle Rock, which had initially bid on the pitch. As he does on most of his films, Bruckheimer brought in scores of writers to punch up the script. Participants included such well-known comedy hands as Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell, the Farrelly Brothers, Gary Ross and Max Frye.

The film was shot in early 2001 in Australia. In keeping with its slick action tone, Bruckheimer hired director David McNally, who'd made "Coyote Ugly," a Bruckheimer movie about an aspiring songwriter who lands a job as a dancing sex kitten in a nightclub. When the film was initially cut together, it was obvious that the kangaroo footage, using a mechanically operated animatronic kangaroo, didn't work. Neither did the film. However, looking at the early test screening results, Bruckheimer saw a ray of hope. There was one character that younger kids loved -- the kangaroo.

When the producer went to a test screening of the film last January with Warner Bros. Chairman Alan Horn, he saw posters everywhere for a new Disney film, "Snow Dogs." Rated PG and aimed at kids, "Snow Dogs" was an instant hit, buoyed by a TV ad campaign that led audiences to believe that the dogs talked, which they did in only one brief scene.

Voila! "I told Alan, 'Let's make the kangaroo talk,' " Bruckheimer recalls. "We did a dream sequence where he raps, we changed the title to 'Kangaroo Jack' and we made it much more kid-friendly all around." Suddenly a hip mob comedy was an adorable kangaroo picture. Warner Bros. ended up spending an extra $10 million to shoot additional footage and replace its animatronic kangaroos with computer-generated kangaroo characters. Not every studio would've been willing to risk throwing good money after bad, but Warner Bros. was betting on Bruckheimer's commercial instincts and was eager to keep him happy, since his Warner Bros.-produced TV show, "CSI," is a huge moneymaker for the studio.

Last summer, after the computer effects were completed, Warner Bros. had a new "Kangaroo Jack" test screening. "It went through the roof," Bruckheimer says. "It was the biggest change in test screening numbers in Warners history." When the studio submitted the film to the MPAA for a PG rating, it was initially rejected. So Bruckheimer cut out more footage, largely sequences with objectionable language or sexual innuendo. When the film was resubmitted, it got its vital PG rating, even though the testicle joke and breast grope remained. I asked the MPAA to explain its decision but, as always, the ultra-secretive organization refused to discuss any specific ratings. In fact, Bruckheimer says that when parents at another screening objected to a couple of mildly vulgar words like "ass," he cut them out of the picture, "even though the MPAA hadn't asked us to."

In keeping with the "Snow Dogs" model, Warners put the film's kid-friendly kangaroo front and center in its ads, releasing the film on Jan. 17, the same date that "Snow Dogs" opened last year. Asked if it wasn't misleading to run TV spots with a talking kangaroo when the kangaroo barely talks in the actual film, Warner Bros. marketing chief Dawn Taubin explained: "There's clearly a lot of kangaroo in the movie. And our exit polls indicated very strongly that a large percentage of the audience were highly satisfied with the movie."

That's small comfort for the parents I heard from who felt deceived. So whom should we be most upset with? Warners hardly broke new ground in misleading moviegoers: Given a lemon, nearly every studio will do whatever it takes to make lemonade. Still, it's important to remember that at the time of the Senate Commerce Committee's hearings on Hollywood marketing practices, Warner Bros. said it was voluntarily enacting even stricter marketing prohibitions, with Horn telling The Times: "I am a father of two young children ... and there are some lines I won't cross in the pursuit of dollar bills."

The real villain here is the Jack Valenti-controlled MPAA. Its "Kangaroo Jack" ruling is another nail in the coffin for a ratings board that has shown itself to be wildly out of touch with parental standards and totally capricious in its judgments, having given an R rating, for example, to "Billy Elliot," preventing scores of kids from seeing a truly inspirational movie.

The ratings system, which started out as a cunning gambit to protect the movie business from religious crusaders, has turned into a charade that will surely embolden a headline-hunting politician to attack the industry for its cynical hypocrisy. The "Kangaroo Jack" episode might serve as a juicy target. It's time for Hollywood to screw up the courage and reform the ratings game before its moguls have to go back to Washington and do it while squirming in the spotlight.

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"The Big Picture" runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or comments, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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