We don’t even question it. Before every trailer and movie, we stare at a giant green (or red) label that summarizes the nature of the content we’re about to enjoy: “The following preview has been approved…” Whether PG, PG-13, or R, we read these mundane descriptions of the movie to prepare ourselves for what’s to come. Mentions of violence, sexuality and language are fairly run of the mill, but when you look more closely, you’ll see some inconsistencies from the tyrannical ratings board, the Motion Picture Association of America.
The MPAA runs the movie warnings show, and they’ve done so for decades. Like a bureaucratic agency in the government, the MPAA is elected by no one and policed by their own. Their history is murky, their chain of command is dubious, and their reputation is up for debate, yet somehow, the MPAA has dictated the fate of countless movies for time immemorial. They created the “one F-word” rule for PG-13 movies, and they defined the rules for sexual content in R-rated flicks. They are the arbiter of our eyes, the dictator of directors, and one of the most mysterious organizations in Hollywood. Despite their prominence, their metric for assessing a film’s content is inconsistent, questionable, and downright weird.
Here is but a small sampling of The MPAA’s Most WTF Movie Warnings:
15. The Magnificent Seven/Monuments Men – “Historical Smoking”
Official Rating for The Magnificent Seven: PG-13 for extended and intense sequences of Western violence, and for historical smoking, some language and suggestive material.
Official Rating for The Monuments Men: PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking.
We have a lot of questions for the MPAA. There are the requisite inquiries: “Why do you exist?” “Who works for you?” and “Where’s Rachel?!” Then there are the particulars, like, “what on Earth is historical smoking?” You can bet with absolute certainty that when George Clooney set out to make The Monuments Men and Antoine Fuqua got behind the camera for The Magnificent Seven remake, the very last thing on their minds was a rating about historical smoking. By the MPAA’s bizarre metric, anything in their movies should have had a “historical” adjective accompanying it. Historical violence, historical language, and yes, historical sensuality.
As if any sane individual would be deterred by such information. Imagine John Doe perusing the local movie show times in his paper, hoping to take John Doe Jr. to the theater. The Magnificent Seven sure looks good, he thinks to himself, until he spies the ghastly rating. Historical smoking! That just won’t do. In the Doe household, they only prefer modern inhalation and the occasional futuristic puff. Historical smoking is off limits.
14. The Indian in the Cupboard – “Sexy Dancing”
Official Rating: PG for mild language and brief video images of violence and sexy dancing.
If you grew up in the 1990s, The Indian in the Cupboard was a staple of your youth. It was spellbinding and imaginative, a true getaway from the banality of grade school. What a perfect opportunity for the MPAA to prove they collectively forgot the magic of their childhoods. In a prime example of the tyrant board’s approach to rating movies, the MPAA declared Parental Guidance necessary due to “brief video images of violence and sexy dancing.”
Never mind that the board completely missed the more emotional nature of the film. They don’t care about the plot or the characters, only a ten-second video clip that shows some women enjoying a brief dance. It’s not even like it’s the Eric Prydz “Call On Me” music video, or some Jane Fonda workout tape. No, it’s just dancing, a traditional human pastime that the MPAA decides to sexualize for a totally wholesome and innocuous kid’s movie.
13. The Fugitive – “Action Sequences in an Adventure Setting”
Official Rating: PG-13 for a murder and other action sequences in an adventure setting.
This fairly descriptive one-liner surely took shape after that waterfall sequence with Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford. Because waterfalls are kind of tropical, right? Regardless, when the jolly MPAA employees tasked with reviewing The Fugitive sat down in the theater with their pens and papers, the opening scene’s “murder” surely made the list right out of the gate. “Wow, that was quite a murder. We should just put that spoiler right in the warning. My boss will love my specificity.” Most people would never even talk about a movie with those terms, but by now, it should be clear that the MPAA lives on another planet. Anybody who saw a preview for The Fugitive would know with a shadow of a doubt that the entire movie hinges on a man who’s been wrongfully accused of murder. When the MPAA crawls into the conversation, however, they affirm: “movie about murder has murder in movie.”
Forget all of that and observe the final and most inexplicable part of the warning: “in an adventure setting.” Whatever they were hoping to achieve, this reviewer somehow made The Fugitive sound like Pippi Longstocking. You can almost hear the thought process: “there’s a murder, other action sequences, and Brick killed a guy with a trident…but it’s all in an adventure setting, so it’s not that bad!” And that, kids, is how your movie gets a PG-13 rating.
12. Matilda – “Exaggerated Meanness and Ridicule”
Official Rating: PG for elements of exaggerated meanness and ridicule, and for some mild language.
There’s no doubt about it: Matilda had a rough childhood. She had to deal with Danny DeVito as a father and navigate the terrifying Miss Trunchbull at school. If the MPAA had any sense of humor, they’d have slapped a warning on the movie that says: “cute little Matilda spends way too much time in the chokey.” But no, they distance themselves even further from rationale and human thought, describing the unfortunate life of Matlida as “exaggerated” in a fairly obvious attack on Roald Dahl’s classic story. You can’t just label a story as “exaggerated” without tarnishing the artistic freedom and credibility of the writers, producers, actors, and director. That’s not an assessment of the content of the material as much as its presentation, which is an area the MPAA has absolutely no license to explore.
“Exaggerated meanness and ridicule.” Yes, Matilda had a tough go, but that’s what makes her a compelling protagonist. It’s like the MPAA crew sat there and thought, “This isn’t how I remember my childhood! No one has ever experienced this level of abuse, so therefore, we will label it ‘exaggerated’ to shield children from this strange, alternate reality.” It’s called a movie, guys. Escapism! You should try it.
11. Much Ado About Nothing (1993) – “Momentary Sensuality”
Official Rating:PG-13 for momentary sensuality.
It was a slow day at the MPAA offices. When the teething reviewers filed in to watch Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, they knew they wouldn’t have a lot of room for creative expression. It’s Shakespeare, after all, and it’s one of this tamest stories in the folio. There’s always room for artistic interpolation, of course, but in the tale of Benedick and Beatrice, violence and sex is kept to a minimum.
Enter the weakest MPAA rating of all: “momentary sensuality” for a fleeting kiss between lovers, the joyful union of those which had been at odds for the entire story. When Benedick and Beatrice finally declare a truce, they lock lips in maybe the classiest on-screen kiss outside of You’ve Got Mail. For anyone to even draw attention to this moment is shameful, but to put it in writing in such technical terms is proof that some of the MPAA employees have lived a full life of momentary sensuality. Alas, poor Yorick! We criticize that which reminds us of ourselves.
10. Little Giants – “Pranks”
Official Rating: PG for Kids’ Rude Language and Pranks.
Without bad behavior, mischief, and the occasional prank, what would be the point of childhood? From The Sandlot to Home Alone, the 1990s were the apogee of storytelling targeted at kids. By drawing on their own nostalgia and tapping into their inner child, pre-Y2K filmmakers simply understood how to get kids amped to be alive. Then there’s the MPAA, which couldn’t let a football comedy slip by unscathed. Though the movie has all of the hallmark qualities of a ‘90s kids-driven adventure film, the MPAA simply saw it as an opportunity to critique adolescent behavior, giving Little Giants a PG rating for “kids’ rude language and pranks.”
Pranks? That’s what the review panel took away from the movie? Whatever “pranks” the MPAA saw were simply kids being kids. It’s like the MPAA is the most uptight parent ever, making up their own lexicon to punish bad behavior: “Go to your room!” the stern MPAA father yelled. “Why, daddy?” the kid cried. “Because…pranks!” You can’t make this stuff up.
9. Alice in Wonderland – “A Smoking Caterpillar”
Official Rating: PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar.
A caterpillar getting high on a hookah? For the MPAA, this was unacceptable. As if to punish Tim Burton for bringing to life the beloved story of Lewis Carroll, the tyrannical ratings board calls out Alice in Wonderland for “fantasy/action violence involving scary images,” then tacks on this addendum, “and for a smoking caterpillar.” First of all, what’s with the random slash between fantasy and action? Secondly, would this rating have applied if the Queen of Hearts enjoyed a proper e-cig? We think not. Also, did The Good Dinosaur rating get any attention for the scene where the caveboy and the dinosaur do some prehistoric shrooms together and have a total blast? Nope. But Alice in Wonderland, classic fantasy literature that has the “Whooo are youuu?” caterpillar in its well-worn pages, can’t be adapted to the big screen without getting a call-out.
8. Ice Age – “Mild Peril”
Official Rating: PG for Mild Peril.
Without perpetuating a total character assassination of the MPAA, we would be remiss to ignore the travesty of their rating for Ice Age. It’s easy to conflate and confuse words. We’ve all done it. Sometimes, pairs of appellations sound so good together that you forget they make absolutely zero literary or grammatical sense. Like that time the MPAA watched Ice Age and felt compelled to label it filled with “mild peril.”
Let’s break this down. First of all, peril literally means “immediate danger,” like Titanic meets iceberg kind of danger. To call that level of exposure “mild” shows the MPAA has never bothered to crack open a dictionary. What makes them agree that this prehistoric adventure movie is perilous, yet only in a mild way? Is it the presence of lovable animals that lightens the load? In defense of Scrat the acorn-harvesting squirrel, it’s clear that this peril is the exact opposite of mild. It’s life threatening, epoch ending and absolutely terrifying.
7. War of the Buttons (1994) – “Bare Bottoms”
Official Rating: PG for mischievous conflict, some mild language and bare bottoms.
Forget defining “mild language,” and there’s no need to explain the “some” caveat. Let’s get to the heart of the matter. With this charming Irish flick, War of the Buttons, the MPAA turns a highly enjoyable kid’s movie into a weird one-liner about “mischievous conflict and bare bottoms.” With the Motion Picture Association of America, nothing is sacred.
Consider the plot: two rival gangs of young boys in rural Ireland seek to one-up each other through various acts of resistance. This isn’t the Montagues versus the Capulets, mind you, and absolutely no one sustains real injuries. It’s all gamesmanship to the boys, but if the MPAA wants to call it “mischievous conflict,” that’s on them. As for the mention of exposed derrieres, that scene occurs when one of the gangs decides a naked attack on the other will help them win the war. The scene is played for laughs, is utterly comical and completely devoid of any sexual undertones. Apparently the MPAA has never seen, nor personally possess any “bare bottoms” of their own.
6. Alien vs. Predator – “Slime”
Official Rating: R for Violence, language, horror images, slime and gore
If Alien vs. Predator earned this warning, the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards should be rated NC-17. For the love of all that is holy and human, since when has slime ever offended anyone? It’s gross and gooey, sure, but it’s probably the most anodyne substance on the face of the earth.
“I dunno, Matthew. This sure is one violent movie, and that slime is just out of control.”
“Agreed, Timothy. I say we draw attention to it. Let the people know.”
And so the Alien vs. Predator rating hit the press, declaring “violence, language, horror images, slime and gore” for all to see. Just out of curiosity, where was this rating for the first Alien? Or the second? The third? What about Ghostbusters? You’d think that would have been a slam dunk for, “An abundance of offensive green slime,” right? However you slice it, the MPAA has proven to have a weak stomach and a totally useless metric for rating movies.
5. The Skateboard Kid II – “An Adolescent Punch in the Nose”
Official Rating: PG for brief mild language and an adolescent punch in the nose.
This movie may be a relic of the ‘90s, but its themes are timeless. It’s about the struggle of childhood, and what could be more universal than that? Young Sammy Curtis has to deal with bullies, insecurities, and the growing ambition of his adolescence. It’s like a Karate Kid redux where martial arts are replaced with a super-powered skateboard, and Mister Miyagi is swapped out for “Zeno” the all-knowing skating zen-master. The journey from zero-to-hero isn’t an easy one for Sammy, and on the road to young adulthood, he deals with some physical oppression and after-school fighting. To be exact, he takes a fist to the face, or as the Motion Picture Association of America calls it, “an adolescent punch in the nose.”
4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – “Quirky Situations”
Official rating: PG for quirky situations, action and mild language.
This one is so righteous. It’s well established that the MPAA is totally out of touch with mankind, and they basically exist to slap weird labels on moments and emotions they fail to understand. That being said, their rating for Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s just terribly obvious and more awkward than the movie itself.
“How did you like that Willy Wonka sequel, Margie?” Within seconds of hearing the question, Margie blushes and sits down, unable to look her coworker in the eye.
“Well, Mark. It was…Johnny Depp was…” She stuttered, faltered, failed. “It had some quirky situations.” Margie then shot out of her chair and rushed to the lady’s room.
In the movie itself, Wonka says it best through clenched teeth, “You’re a little weird.” This is far from the first Tim Burton movie to ever make audiences feel strange. How come Edward Scissorhands didn’t get slapped with something like, “Uncomfortable moments with metal appendages?” Because the MPAA does what it wants, that’s why.
3. Twister – “Very Bad Weather”
Official rating: PG-13 Intense depiction of very bad weather.
Yes, this is real. By the same standard, Jaws should’ve been rated R for “turbulent, murky and shark-filled water.” Newsflash to the MPAA team! There is literally no sentient human, animal species, or planet fungus alive that would assume Twister is about anything other than inclement weather.
Seriously, if there was any rhyme or reason in the halls of the MPAA, they’d retroactively slap the same title on The Wizard of Oz. That’s a fantasy tale about Dorothy and her motley crew. No one saw a twister coming, but when it touched down, houses got airborne. That’s arguably even scarier than a movie literally named after the stormy phenomenon itself. Regardless, the MPAA saw yet another opportunity to literally say, “You know that movie about hurricanes? Yeah, it has hurricanes in it.” Besides, it’s not even the weather that deserves mention, but the personal fallout that it inflicts. Right, MPAA? Are you a team of hosts currently employed at Westworld?
2. 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up – “Non-stop Ninja Action”
Official rating: PG-13 for non-stop ninja action.
Let’s set the record straight. 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up has plenty of moments without a bit of ninjaing. This borderline insane rating implies that Bruce Lee is running through the movie wreaking havoc on characters like it’s The Way of the Dragon. Seriously, what movie was the MPAA watching? This isn’t The Raid, it’s the second sequel to 3 Ninjas, where the lovable kids, Rocky, Colt and Tum Tum stick up for an oppressed Native American village, do a (highly entertaining) peace dance, then take down an anti-environmental corporation.
There’s absolutely no reason for this movie to have received a PG-13 rating, especially after its predecessors were firmly in Parental Guidance territory. This stuff is so tame it makes Jackie Chan’s American movies look like a Tarantino flick. Thanks to the MPAA’s bizarre rating process, however, 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up flopped at the box office with a final haul of $407,618. Looks like no one over 13 wanted to see “Non-stop ninja action” after all.
1. Team America: World Police – “Graphic, crude and sexual humor…involving puppets”
Official rating: R for graphic, crude and sexual humor, violent images and strong language – all involving puppets.
Hats off to the MPAA. They totally nailed this one, even if they dragged Trey Parker and Matt Stone through the mud to earn their hard-fought R-rating for Team America. If you want to witness the odyssey the South Park creators endured to keep the MPAA from slapping a punitive NC-17 rating on their puppet adventure, check out the documentary, This Movie Is Not Yet Rated.
As for Team America, this movie deserves every ounce of the patently absurd rating it received. One-part abomination and another absolute genius, this cinematic puppet-poem puts the Pinocchio wannabes in all manner of compromising situations. From the most colorful language this side of a Scorsese movie, to shocking violence and the lengthiest, raunchiest and most shocking sex scene this side of Sausage Party, Team America is the MPAA’s crowning achievement. Why? Not only do they hit all the major points of offensiveness in the film, they remember the most important part: it’s “all involving puppets.”
What are some other classic ratings from the MPAA? Let us know your favorites in the comments!