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From ‘Potter’ to ‘Apes': How Much More Violent Can PG-13 Movies Get?

The MPAA has set a rather loose guideline for studio tentpoles — leave out the sex and coarse language, but cram in pretty much all the murder and mayhem you want

After nearly three decades, the PG-13 rating seems to have outlived its usefulness. 

Make no mistake, the PG-13 rated movies are getting edgier and rougher — including, notably, the final “Harry Potter” installments, and the even more brutal “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” that debuted last weekend. 

Especially at “Apes,” unsuspecting child-accompanied parents may have found themselves wondering just how much more ape-thwacking, electrocuting, cop-pummeling onscreen action it would take to push the simian origin story a notch deeper into marketing no-no land.

Meanwhile, a genial Oscar-bait historical film that features a four-letter word in just one scene got clobbered with the dreaded R rating — as do any number of films with milder sex than you’d see on HBO in primetime.

Indeed, the Motion Picture Assn. of America's rating system garnered a lot of attention late last year, when it not only slapped "The King's Speech" with an R but also delivered the entirely restrictive NC-17 mark to another Weinstein Co. film, Ryan Gosling drama "Blue Valentine" (above), largely on the pungency of a single sex scene.

Also read: Harvey Wins! MPAA Overturns 'Blue Valentine's NC-17

Weinstein successfully appealed the rating for "Blue Valentine" (below), bringing it down to the much more accessible R. After the R-rated "King's Speech" won Best Picture at the Oscars, the studio released an f-word-less version to try and reach an even bigger audience.

Studio co-chair Harvey Weinstein noted the tendency of the MPAA to hammer movies for including sex and coarse language, but not violence.

"While we respect the MPAA, I think we can all agree that we are living with an outdated ratings system that gives torture porn, horror and ultraviolent films the same rating as films with so-called inappropriate language," Weinstein said in a November statement.

Also read: MPAA Appeals Board: 'Dream House' Deserves R Rating

To his point, within the broad framework of PG-13, pre-teen moviegoers this summer got to see not just "Apes" and the darkest "Potter" of all, but Vin Diesel and the Rock brutally pummel each other in Universal's "Fast Five." They also got to see a subterranean alien eat and dismember human prey in the Steven Spielberg-produced, J.J. Abrams-directed "Super 8."

And upcoming: the adaptation of the popular "Hunger Games" novel, in which youths must battle each other to the death, the winner providing enough food for his or her village to survive for a year.

So, at what point of roughness — necessary or unnecessary — does the MPAA move a film from PG-13 to R?

First, a bit of history.

It’s seldom remembered now how the MPAA instituted, in 1984, the PG-13 rating to bridge the gap in the deep divide between PG and R.

Given the somewhat mysterious — but certainly studio-friendly — workings of the MPAA, it’s no surprise which Hollywood mandarin asked for the change. 

It was Spielberg, who in that year produced “Gremlins” and directed “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (right).

Today, they’d be called wussies for getting worked up over those two films, but enough parents complained in advance about the overload of violence and graphic imagery that then-MPAA-head Jack Valenti decided to add the PG-13 rating, rather than limit the audience by stamping the films with an R.

Originally followed by a dense 23-word cautionary note, in 1986 the guideline for PG-13 was shortened simply to: "Parents strongly cautioned — some material may be inappropriate for children under 13."

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"As we have often stated, the decision of whether to allow a child to see a PG-13-rated motion picture is best left to the child’s parent, taking into consideration the individual maturity and sensitivities of each child," replied an MPAA spokesman, in a prepared statement, to an inquiry by TheWrap last week.

"As the rating descriptors indicate, there is a broad array of content that can result in a PG-13 rating, and parents may well decide that some PG-13 content is appropriate for their child and that other PG-13 content is not.”

Considering the content of many PG-13 films these days, the MPAA isn't that much help.

“I think back to when I was a kid, and my parents grappling with whether my younger sister and I could see 'Return of the Jedi,'said Fordham University psychologist Rachel Annunziato, who works mostly with youngsters at Mt. Sinai hospital, “Because when Darth Vader takes off his helmet, it’s gonna be really scary.

“It’s just so different now in terms of all the things kids have already seen before they get in the movie theater," she added. "Kids in the middle and upper end of that age range from 5 to 13, have seen so much before walking into ‘Harry Potter,' whether it be via the news the video games, and other movies or books they’ve read.”

Annunziato sees few dangers in the zombie, werewolf and vampire genre’s less lurid programing: “It’s escapism first and foremost — as outrageous as it gets, the effect is to say, I don’t have to think about lots and lots of [negative] things while watching one of those shows or playing one of those games.”

Even with the gruesomely dystopian “Hunger Games,” Annunziato sees a possible upside: “They’re thinking along with that hero or heroine about finding a way to combat the situation — that element is very attractive, 'how would I survive to become a hero in all this?'”

But with an increasingly heightened level of violence being acceptable within the R-rating's guidelines, how do parents know in advance what their children are in for?

It’s a rare visit to even some of the more aggressive films bearing that rating that won’t include the sight of a family with what seems like an inappropriately young member along. 

Enter the probably under-utilized services of Common Sense, the non-profit, San Francisco-based site, founded seven years ago by writer James P. Steyer (“The Other Parent") to give informed advice to parents on films and other media kids may see.

With links at any number of entertainment sites including Fandango, Netflix, Google and Yahoo, the service “comes at all our ratings from a childhood development perspective — our goal is to help parents make their own informed decisions," says the company’s director of reviews and ratings, Betsy Bozdech.

Bozdech sees the PG-13 rating as the crucial area where her site — and others like Kids InMind and ScreenIt — can help.

“What kids are ready for varies a lot within those ages, and so I think, while the MPAA ratings provide a valuable service, there are more nuances out there that their ratings can account for,” Bozdech said.

Knowledgeable in the extreme about the content of many kid-oriented films, Bozdech recalls the moment when the "Harry Potter" series went darker — “after about the fourth movie, when the first big death [of Cedric Diggory] happened."

She said the site issues reviews to amplify their fairly simple ratings system: “We always pick a target age, and we will say whether at that target age we consider it age appropriate, iffy or not age-appropriate.”

Thus for the latest "Potter," the target age of 12 is circled in green, and the site judges it a ”spectacularly epic, poignant end to a magical series.”

Ultimately, says Bozdech, parents have to make their own calls — after all, excessive violence may not tweak some moms and dads as much as bad language.

"I remember receiving an email about 'The Bourne Identity' because they used the phrase, ‘Oh, my God,'" she recalled. "And they said they had to turn off the movie with their kids, because obviously that person has a different concern than I do, because for me the problem in that movie is that he’s killing people with pencils.”

Unfortunately, with current PG-13 guidelines, when it comes to violence, the MPAA isn't giving most parents much help at all.