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Paramount’s ‘Rango’ Has Lit Up a Smoking Controversy

Anti-smoking group questions whether animated critters in Johnny Depp PG-rated film should be lighting up on screen

Where there's smoke, is there really fire?

When it comes to Paramount's upcoming animated feature "Rango," it depends who you ask.

The organization Smoke Free Movies — which seeks to eliminate depictions of tobacco use in motion pictures — ignited debate on Thursday with a full-page ad in the Hollywood Reporter. Its target? The Johnny Depp-voiced "Rango," which features a number of critters who enjoy a cigarette.

"How many studio execs did it take to OK smoking in a 'PG' movie?" the ad's headline screams, before asking, "What was Paramount thinking?"

Paramount counters that the smoking in "Rango" isn't intended to be glamorous, and that the movie's title character is tobacco-free. 

Virginia Lam, spokesperson for Paramount Pictures, tells TheWrap, "Rango is an animated action comedy that features the protagonist chameleon, Rango, as the hero of a woebegone western town populated by talking owls, rats, lizards, turtles and prairie dogs. The images of smoking in the film, which primarily involves the animals, are portrayed by supporting characters and are not intended to be celebrated or emulated. Rango is never depicted as smoking.”

None of which is likely to hold water with Smoke Free Movies, which argues in its ad, "Does 'Rango' show much smoking? Few PG films do. So why include it at all? It's a bad guy who smokes? No excuse, either. The research finds that bad guys can have more influence than good guys on kids' starting to smoke."

Based out of the University of California, San Francisco, Smoke Free Movies is headed by Stanton A. Glantz, PhD, a professor of medicine at the University. In the past, the project has taken aim at "Avatar" and "He's Just Not That Into You," among other films. The Oscar-nominated "The King's Speech," for instance, received kudos from the organization for its mention of tobacco use's health consequences.

The Smoke-Free Movies ad goes on to cite research by the National Cancer Institute linking childrens' on-sceen exposure to smoking and real-life teen smoking rates.

Lam notes that Paramount "takes the issue of smoking seriously and we’ve been responsive to the concerns of anti-tobacco groups … Paramount has implemented several best practices suggested by Smoke Free Movies." Among these best practices is the inclusion of "public service announcements in its youth-rated DVD releases that depict smoking."

According to MPAA spokesperson Elizabeth Kaltman, underage smoking has always factored into movie ratings, but as of May 2007, all smoking is included as a ratings factor, along with language, nudity and other adult content. Kaltman adds that movies depicting smoking in a fantastical rather than realistic manner are more likely to receive slack on the ratings front.

As for Smoke Free Movies' suggestion that smoking and the PG rating don't mix? Kaltman notes that the purpose of the ratings system is to provide parents with information, not to service activists.

Will audiences, like Smoke Free Movies, be put off by an animated, PG-rated movie that features cartoon critters lighting up? Only the March 4 release of the film will tell. But one thing's for certain — it's a good thing for Popeye that Smoke Free Movies didn't exist when he first stuck that corncob pipe in his mouth.