The Difficulty of Turning Kids Toys Into Kids Movies

By  · Published on September 30th, 2016

Action figures are PG, but action movies are not.

Imagine if the first Harry Potter movie had been rated R. Or even PG-13. As the series of adaptations went on, they did mature along with their audience, and a few of the movies did receive a PG-13 rating, but that very first installment had to be more kid-friendly. J.K. Rowling’s books, after all, were initially aimed at children.

Now imagine the equivalent in the toy world. Could Warner Bros. have similarly gotten away with evolving the American Girl TV and direct-to-video movies so some were eventually rated PG-13 (all of their and Universal’s productions are rated G except one, which is PG)? Definitely not, but they’re also based on wholesome dolls and easily kept very clean.

Action figures aren’t as fortunate. For the most part, they’ve historically been associated with violence and been packaged with weapons as accessories. The most popular brands have included military characters such as G.I. Joe and warring robots like Transformers. It would seem near impossible to produce live-action movies from them rated anything lower than a PG-13.

It’s not surprising, then, that the upcoming toy-based movie Max Steel lost its bid for a PG rating. The MPAA stamped the teen action fantasy with a PG-13 instead. That doesn’t mean younger kids can’t or won’t see it, but it’s been deemed inappropriate, or less appropriate, for their viewing. There’s an irony in the fact that it’s likely faithful to the figures, which Mattel markets as fit for kids four years old and up.

What about toys that aren’t centered around guns and fighting? When the announcement came this week that Justin Lin would be directing the Hot Wheels movie, it sounded like he’d be doing a PG-rated take on the Fast and Furious franchise, of which he helmed three installments. But what kind of movie based on toy cars will be PG and appeal to a wide enough audience?

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This is not a problem limited to toys and games, the latter of which turns out PG-13 action and horror fare like Battleship and next month’s Ouija: Origin of Evil (their respective original products are for 7&up and 8&up according to Hasbro). Many parents and their kids who know enough to complain that too many comic book movies skew older than a lot of comic book readers.

It’s not just unfair to those who can’t see these movies but also those who can. Almost everything out of Hollywood looks to garner a PG-13 rating. Movies based on kid stuff want the higher rating so it looks cool enough for teens and adults to be interested, and movies that used to be more for adults and receive R ratings, like action and horror titles, want the lower rating to allow for kids, which isn’t so much to appeal to them but to the parents who want the okay to bring their kids rather than hire a babysitter. In the end, everything winds up being safe, bland, homogenized entertainment.

And all the movies are mainly for, as the rating indicates, 13 year olds. It wasn’t always this way, of course. Even after the introduction of the PG-13 rating in 1984, Clue was PG despite being about murder and involving a lot of sexual themes, and Master of the Universe was also PG, but that one is pretty childish and unsurprisingly failed at the box office.

We can bet the next Clue and He-Man (Masters of the Universe) movies, which are in the works, are PG-13. Meanwhile, movies based on dolls still wind up qualifying for a PG, and it’s not for that reason that Bratz and Jem and the Holograms were flops. If Sony’s planned live-action Barbie movie is PG-13, that will be a shock and a problem.

And animated features will never have such an issue, because just as gun violence in toys is more kid-appropriate than gun violence in live-action movies, so is gun violence in cartoons. When something from the Lego Movie franchise gets a PG-13, and its irreverent humor might actually eventually warrant that, that could be an issue, as well.

As for the live-action fare, children are better off not seeing the G.I. Joe and Transformers movies anyway (even when they get older). Anyway they have cartoon series on TV that are more targeted to them (both have always been TV-Y7, even the latter’s less-violent, more tot-friendly Transformers: Rescue Bots). They also each have so-so PG-rated animated films from the 1980s.

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Plus: toys are toys; movies are movies, and if the kids want something suited for them in the latter medium then there’s still occasionally quality live-action PG-rated movies, such as this year’s The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon and surely every other Disney remake of their own animated classics. Also there’s adaptations of kids books like the Wimpy Kid series.

Also, in very rare times, a studio tries to make a PG-13 movie and winds up with something more kid-friendly than intended, as in the case of Paramount’s financially troubled situation with the upcoming Monster Trucks. Look for that hopefully being PG when it opens in January.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.