Disney Comes of Age With PG-13 Rating for ‘Pirates’
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who’s built a career on high-velocity action pictures, was turned off when Disney Studios sent him a script for a movie version of its theme park ride “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
It was bland, too tame, he told the Disney brass. After all, he’s the man who brought the masses “Top Gun,” “Armageddon” and “Bad Boys.” Still, he was intrigued and brought aboard some like-minded creative types to jazz up the project.
He promised two things to Disney executives bankrolling the $140-million film: “I’ll make the best movie possible and it won’t be an R.”
Instead, Bruckheimer has presented Walt Disney Pictures with its first PG-13-rated movie after the studio’s decades-long run of entertainment safe for audiences of all ages.
Although there’s no sex, drugs or profanity, “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” is filled with computer-generated scenes of pirates transforming into skeletons as the moonlight melts their flesh. Throats are slit. One youngster who won’t be going to the movie, which opens July 9, is the 5-year-old son of Disney production chief Nina Jacobson. “I think it’s too intense and scary,” she said.
That’s what the Motion Picture Assn. of America thought too when it put a PG-13 stamp on the movie this week for its “action/adventure violence.”
Industry experts see Disney’s decision to release a PG-13 movie under its legendary family film banner as recognition of the changing cultural, technological and box-office realities that influence today’s action-movie market.
“What Walt Disney had -- a Norman Rockwell America -- no longer exists in the 21st century, and Disney is simply acknowledging that reality,” said consultant Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures marketing chief and an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley.
Today, Sealey and others say, youngsters are raised in a more amped-up culture, weaned on violent video games and hyper-realistic visual effects on the Internet and on the big screen.
“Even Disney is being forced to ratchet up its level because it knows what teens are used to in all forms of entertainment -- movies, music, TV, video games, Webcasting and comic books,” said psychologist Stuart Fischoff, an expert on the effect of mass media on society.
As a result, with few exceptions, action movies these days must carry a PG-13 to draw large crowds of teenagers who think anything with a softer rating is for their little brothers and sisters.
“PG-13 is the cool rating,” said Paul Dergarabedian, whose company Exhibitor Relations Co. tracks box-office results. “It’s the rating that doesn’t talk down to teens.”
That’s why they have flocked to such PG-13 action movies as “Spider-Man” and “2 Fast 2 Furious,” along with the “Lord of the Rings” and “X-Men” franchises, among many others.
The trend toward edgier fare does not signal the slow demise of PG- or G-rated films. The phenomenally successful “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter” movies, for example, were rated PG. Disney/Pixar Animation Studios’ G-rated “Finding Nemo” is the most popular movie in the country.
Still, the economic realities of different genres cannot be ignored when there’s so much money involved, even when Disney is the investor.
“They see all these huge movies that are acceptable to parents that are PG-13,” Bruckheimer said of Disney executives. “They’re moving with the marketplace.”
Until now, the studio has released its PG-13- and R-rated films under the “mature-theme” banner of its Touchstone Pictures, launched in 1984 with “Splash,” a sexy, romantic comedy starring Daryl Hannah. Disney also owns Miramax Films, known for its often provocative and celebrated adult-oriented movies.
Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook likened the rating on “Pirates” to the height restrictions and health warnings that accompany the company’s scarier theme park rides in Anaheim and Florida, such as Space Mountain, Tower of Terror and Indiana Jones.
With the selection of Bruckheimer to produce the movie, Cook said, “we knew we would be making a thrill ride.”
Cook also stressed that under no circumstances would Disney Pictures release a movie that included foul language, sex or drug use. “There are no exceptions to those rules,” he said.
If Disney’s 1954 science fiction adventure “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” had been made today, it probably would have been rated PG-13 because of a giant squid attacking a submarine, Cook said.
In the early going, Cook and production head Jacobson had hoped “Pirates” would be a PG movie. But Bruckheimer had other ideas.
The producer thought the first script came across as “a straight pirate movie” and told Disney, “I don’t know what to do with this.”
So he called on “Shrek” screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, whose cleverness and wit he admired. The pair came up with a twist that hooked Bruckheimer and Disney. The pirates would be cursed.
As the writers began pounding out a new script, Bruckheimer wooed director Gore Verbinski, best known for his stylish and scary thriller “The Ring,” released last year.
Meanwhile, he was determined to snag a star not known for light-hearted family features, Johnny Depp, who had appeared in such offbeat fare as “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Edward Scissorhands” and “Sleepy Hollow.”
Bruckheimer saw Depp as “an edgy actor who will kind of counter the Disney ‘Country Bears’ soft quality and tell an audience that an adult and teenager can go see this and have a good time with it.”
Depp wasted no time taking his character beyond what even Bruckheimer had envisioned. He modeled himself after Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, whom he’s known since the mid-1980s.
“I was reading about the 18th century pirates and thought they were kind of like rock stars. So, when I thought, ‘Who is the greatest rock ‘n’ roll star of all time?’ it was Keith,” Depp said during a phone interview from France, where he lives.
In the film, Depp wears a red bandana draped around his beaded hair and a thin stripe of black makeup under each eye. He staggers and swaggers.
Depp shocked Bruckheimer and Disney executives before shooting began when he decided to add yet another touch to his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow. He had gold caps placed on all his front teeth.
“Jerry was slightly uncomfortable and the Disney executives weren’t exactly enthusiastic about it,” Depp recalled.
In a compromise, he uncapped a few. “I said, ‘Look, these are the choices I made. You know my work. So either trust me or give me the boot.’ And luckily, they didn’t.”
Despite the PG-13 rating, the 40-year-old Depp said he would feel comfortable taking his 4-year-old daughter to see the movie. “When she was 2 years old, she watched ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and loved it,” Depp said. “At 17, I remember being freaked out about those weird monkeys. She’s totally cool with that stuff.”
But before any filming began, questions began surfacing at Disney’s Burbank offices. Based on sketches of the grotesque skeletons, executives worried that the project was moving into the world of PG-13.
“We told the filmmakers to try very hard to get the PG,” Jacobson said. She said she asked them to “steer clear of things like language, sex and significant amounts of blood that will push us toward a PG-13.”
As the production pushed forward, Disney executives saw some of the footage, including a bloody stabbing scene. They flinched but didn’t demand that the intense sequences be cut.
“You’d lose the guts of the movie,” Cook said. “It would be like cutting out the dip on Space Mountain or the Indiana Jones rides.”
Although “Pirates” is the first PG-13 movie for Disney Pictures, it won’t be the last. On Thanksgiving weekend, Disney will release a movie version of another theme park attraction, “The Haunted Mansion.”
Jacobson said it could draw a PG-13 rating “because of the scariness factor.” But she added that, like “Pirates of the Caribbean,” it will “still be the exception to the rule.”