Puppet Sex Leads to Rating Rift

Times Staff Writer

They call it puppet love.

But the folks who determine film ratings call it NC-17.

The filmmakers behind “Team America: World Police,” an action-genre satire featuring a team of muscular marionettes that save the world, are butting heads with the Motion Picture Assn. of America over the film’s proposed rare rating, which would bar admission to anyone younger than 17.

At the heart of the dispute is a scene in the film that shows simulated sex between the puppets. Thus far, the production team has submitted the scene nine times -- each progressively less graphic -- to the MPAA board, said Scott Rudin, the film’s producer. Each time, the MPAA insisted that the NC-17 rating would remain unless further cuts were made, the filmmakers said. The MPAA did not return phone calls late Monday.


“It’s something we all did as kids with Barbie and Ken dolls,” said Trey Parker, the film’s director and co-creator of the animated TV show “South Park.” “The whole joke of it is that it’s just two dolls flopping around on each other. You see the hinges on their legs. [The MPAA] read into it way more than we ever did.... They said you can’t do anything but missionary position.”

Among other things, the offending material includes shots of a male puppet simulating oral sex. The production team has already excised explicit scatological puppet sex acts in its attempt to gain an R rating, allowing entrance to teenagers under 18 when accompanied by an adult.

“There’s nothing we’re asking for that hasn’t appeared in other R-rated movies, and our characters are made of wood and have no genitalia. If the puppets did to each other what we show them doing, all they’d get is splinters,” Rudin said.

“I can appreciate the ratings board has a responsibility to its constituents. But it’s incredibly enervating for us as it must be for them to have to be going through this nine times.”


To help Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures, which is distributing the film, argue its case, Rudin commissioned his staff to prepare a 45-page memorandum featuring such R-rated films as “Eyes Wide Shut,” “American Psycho” and “In the Cut,” all of which had comparable sex acts, albeit performed by humans.

A Paramount spokesman declined to comment.

The MPAA decision has financial as well as artistic implications; an NC-17 rating limits a film’s audience and thus its box-office potential.

The ratings fight is particularly tense because the filmmakers are contractually required to deliver an R-rated film, and “Team America” is due in theaters Oct. 15. That deadline is complicated by the fact that the studio is planning a sneak preview this weekend as part of its marketing campaign and the ratings issue must be settled.

The raunchy, politically incorrect film is written and directed by Matt Stone and Parker, the writing-directing team behind “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.”

That 1999 film, which featured a humorous sendup of the film ratings system, was also the subject of a protracted and very public ratings battle with the MPAA but ultimately got an R rating.

“Team America” features violent scenes in which a Tim Robbins puppet is set afire and a Susan Sarandon puppet is dropped off a 20-story building -- all acts that passed MPAA muster.

“We blow Janeane Garofalo’s head clean off, [but for the MPAA] it’s all about the positions of the dolls having sex,” Parker said. “It’s not funny -- it’s tragic.”