For a medium with no theoretical limits, animation seems like the most restricted medium in American filmmaking.
Brad Bird, creator of "The Incredibles" and its recent sequel, "Incredibles 2," took to Twitter shortly after the sequel's June release, responding to fans who criticized the film's use of swear words.
"It is NOT a 'kids movie.' It is animated, and rated PG," he tweeted.
The idea that a mainstream American movie could be animated, and rated PG, and not intended specifically for kids feels unusual. Think about it: How many such movies can you name?
I'm not trying to discredit Bird or prove him right, either. That conversation doesn't interest me. What does interest me is why his statement could seem so atypical in the first place. Why is the notion of a PG animated movie not aimed at kids so unique? Isn't animation, by its very nature, a medium without limits?
The answers, I think, say a lot about America's strange attitude toward animation on the big screen.
Reviewing the animated PG and PG-13 films that have gotten wide distribution stateside — by "wide," I mean a release in thousands of U.S. theaters — there are some major differences between them. First, there are way more PG films. In fact, PG has become the dominant MPAA rating for mainstream animated movies: 16 of the 20 all-time highest-grossing animated films are rated PG. In the top 50, only one movie — "The Simpsons Movie," at No. 42 — has a PG-13 rating. (None are rated R.) There are only a handful of animated PG-13 films in the mainstream.
Between these two ratings, there's also a major difference in tone. Of those PG-13 films — "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America," "The Simpsons Movie," "Isle of Dogs" and a few others — most leverage a purposely subversive and irreverent tone. This doesn't seem to be the case in countries like Japan, where animated films are a huge part of their cinematic tradition. Many of those Japanese films get a PG rating in the states, but they often embody the tone that Brad Bird mentioned: animated, PG and not meant specifically for children.
In America, more "mature" animated PG-13/R films often don't turn a profit, and almost none become box office heavyweights — think of how many animated G and PG movies have gotten sequels ("Ice Age" has nearly as many sequels as "The Land Before Time"). Can you name any animated PG-13 or R movies that did the same?
That these factors don't exist in mainstream live-action films is telling. Live-action PG-13/R movies frequently get sequels. They're marketed differently than animated films with the same rating. And they dominate the box office: In 2017, more than half of the top 30 grossing films were PG-13, and all of those PG-13 films were live action.
Each MPAA rating has significant wiggle room when it comes to tone and content — "Back to the Future" is PG, as is the recent heart-warmer "Wonder," but no one would ever compare them. Live action films do plenty of wiggling, but America's animated films almost never do.
An American animated PG movie has become its own genre, with its own set of self-imposed rules. Same with animated PG-13 and R movies. It's resulted in a huge tonal gap between animated PG and PG-13 films, and a movie-watching community that becomes surprised when Elastigirl says a garden-variety swear word. We can imagine cartoon worlds with singing snow queens and talking toys, but we can't imagine them ever cursing in a PG setting. Marty McFly can curse, but Mr. Incredible can't.
Both internally and externally, we have bound an otherwise unbound medium.