You know what’s of little to no help? The rating information for most children’s movies. Here’s one at random: “Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images.”
Taken at face value, this rating might be for an unsettling tale about the IRS coming for a surprise audit (I mean, talk about a horror show) or about anthropomorphized fir trees kidnapping young children who are then saved by Santa in a Rambo suit.
Or take the film Free Birds, the rating of which says, “PG: Some action/peril, rude humor.” Where I come from, action could be anything from West Side Story-esque dance fights to getting picked up at a bar. Rude humor these days is a dinnertime staple, so long as “butt jokes” count as “rude humor.” Ah, but wouldn’t a movie about turkeys likely include breast and leg humor?
Where are the relevant reviews? Like, “IF your kid screamed the last time you were in the chicken coop at the petting zoo, THEN Free Birds will not be a family favorite.”
Movie chemistry is a delicate cocktail that is equal parts MPAA ratings and the tolerance level of each kid. My children have watched every Harry Potter film, even keeping their eyes open when a mewling babylike Voldemort was dumped into a cauldron, but there’s no way I’m taking them to see the Carrie remake.
It’s not the language, violence and sexual suggestiveness that gets me. I can deflect probing questions like: “Why are they kissing if they aren’t married?” Answer: “They tripped and landed on each other’s lips.” If push comes to shove, I can even answer tough questions, assuming I don’t have a treat handy to distract them with. “What does 'that’s BS' mean? Why, I’ll tell you right after we eat all this candy!”
What parents need when trying to decide if a PG-13 grade rules a movie out for their 10-year-old is an if–then rating. This is the kind of insider information that your best friends and babysitters can provide. “Sure, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 was cute, but remember when your youngest thought her French fries were out to get her?” Because children are less a mass of humanity whose coping skills and maturity are able to be assessed as a group than they are unique weirdos with unpredictable peccadilloes. They might only cry for 20 minutes over a compound fracture, but for three hours when you watch Monsters University because of a heretofore-unrealized fear of single eyeballs.
Most parents do a fair job of avoiding the obvious: swearing, sex and violence. But we have a harder time identifying abstract pitfalls. For instance:
If your kid freaked out this summer when you rode the log ride, then you might want to skip Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters.
If your kid thinks monkeys are way cute, then don’t show her The Wizard of Oz.
If your kid worries that the geese in the neighborhood are anthropomorphized militants about to rise up against humans, then Free Birds might not be a good choice.
If your child worries that competitors in the Olympic Games will ultimately be put to death, then The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is probably not for him.
If your child has an unhealthy obsession with hand tools, then Thor: The Dark World is not the movie for you.
If your kid spent most of last winter peeking out the window at the family snowman and muttering, “he’s staring at me, stop staring at me!”, then reconsider seeing Frozen.
These movies, many of which I have seen or plan to see with my own children, are probably just great. But you never know when your child will turn to you in the theater during Despicable Me 2, tears threatening to spill out from her eyes, pleading, “Why did you take me here when you know how scared I am of yellow!?”