Fun with MPAA ratings: Non-stop Ninja Action!

Parental warning: Non-stop ninja action!

Since my last guestblogging stint, a few media things have happened that I thought might be worth sharing. One group often covered here, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), relaunched its film ratings website, making it even easier to find unintentionally hilarious movie rating rationales.

What rating capsules do your favorite movies have? What do you think would be a better one? More on the rating system after the break.

Image: screencap from 1995 trailer for 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up

Warning: Twister is "rated PG-13 for intense depiction of very bad weather." Screencap from CARA site.

It can be a bit of a competition among film geeks to find the best capsule rationales. The best ones tend to be the PG or PG-13 ratings. Right after the launch, Zach at Gunaxin rated his top 20 ratings. He cited the rationale almost unanimously deemed best by connoisseurs of the form: 1995's severely awesome kid flick 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up, "rated PG-13 for non-stop ninja action." I watched it just based on the capsule.

Ratings started as a film industry response to the restrictive government-backed Hays Code, which had enforced all kinds of morality on films from 1930 to 1967.

Many credit MPAA with helping usher in the golden age of cinema of the late 60s and early 70s. However, they have been mired in political controversies of their own. As Cory has blogged previously, the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated is the best overview of the history and problems of the trade group's rating arm, now called the government-sounding Classification and Rating Administration (CARA). The ratings are tallied from a secretive group of everyday citizens who rate every film in the US.

Among the many complaints, one of the most common involves the relatively lax ratings for violence compared to language and sexuality. As Sheila Broflovski said of the MPAA, "Horrific, deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don't say any naughty words!" Things are even worse for sex, especially sex and gender minorities. Movies with lesbian/gay/bi/trans themes always get a harder rating than a non-LGBT equivalent. Brokeback Mountain would have been a PG-13 at best if the couple were straight, and the most ridiculous rating in my opinion is the R rating they gave Ma Vie En Rose, a sweet but sad story about a gender-variant child. They claim it's for "brief strong language," but a similar movie without the transgender aspect would have been PG, I bet.

Anyway, look forward to the comments!



  1. Brilliant. You have to remember that the people rating movies are just like you and me (well, probably), so I get the feeling some of the more bizarre ones (“non-stop ninja action”) are secretly a tiny bit tongue-in-cheek…

    1. “You have to remember that the people rating movies are just like you and me (well, probably)”

      Go watch This Film is Not Yet Rated. Those folks bare very little resemblance to me, and as someone who has registered a boingboing account, probably not you, either.

    2. I highly recommend you watch the mentioned documentary “This Film is Not Yet Rated” – raters aren’t like you and me!

  2. Nice of them to forbid copying anything by hiding it behind a layer of flash.

    And yet, they offer a “print this page” for everything. Way to hate on the trees, guys!

  3. These ratings are getting to specific, to the point that they should be prefaced with “SPOILER ALERT!” When it says “a scene of sensuality” or “a fight” rather than “sensuality” or “violence”, I instantly know that there is one awkward teen romance scene, or one barroom brawl. After those scenes pass, I know both that there will be no more kissing and no more fisticuffs, AND that nothing in the rest of the movie was scandalous enough to warrant MPAA attention.

    When it says “mild language” I know there’s a “penis-breath” but not a “fuckface.” Heck, sometimes I go to a movie knowing zero about it (like when I saw Inception last week). The last thing I want is some rating specifics telling me exactly how many times I’ll be excited during the film.

  4. Wow, is that literally all they do? I always thought it was just a shorthand, you know, like with the bbfc.

    Just compare this to the British ratings board – many have “eci”, extended classification information where you can at least get a feeling for where they’re coming from. But the MPAA just releases the shorthands? Ugh.

  5. The second Harry Potter movie was rated 12 in the UK, with a warning on any advertising that one of the reasons for the rating was “fantasy spiders”…

  6. Well, at least there’s one good thing about the ratings system: this rating for Alice in Wonderland (2010).

    Rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar.

    And I second drewstarr’s suggestion to watch This Film Not Yet Rated. A must see for any movie buff.

  7. Hey, I know that guy — the Three Ninja films were directed by Shin Sang-ok, the prominent South Korean director who was kidnapped by North Korea and eventually escaped.

    Oddly one of the reasons he was kidnapped was a falling out with the Park Chung-hee government over film censorship.

  8. The classification system for this and ERSB is one of those things that seemed to be wrapped in secrecy purely for monetary gain. I noticed that with the ERSB (which seems to have similiar procedures), violence is considerablly more accepted that sexuality (the whole Hot Coffee fiasco comes to mind, along with the Oblivion rerating).

    I’m in favor of a public algroythim, even with the potential abuses when the film makers make it 0.01% less than the rating rating above it. I’d rather have the transparency (and potentially a more granular scale) when it comes to making decisions about movies. Of course, I’d also like one system to handle movies, games, CD’s (…), and television shows, but I’m probably asking a lot.

    On the long drives I’ve taken, I’ve happily come up with how I would do it differently (because I feel that if I want to bitch about something, I better have an alternative). Sadly, when I talk about it with my local friends, I usually get rolling eyes and dramatic sighs because they, well, Just Don’t Care™.

  9. I love the more descriptive ratings. When I was growing up things just got the letter rating. Parents (and viewers in general), just had to take the MPAA’s word for it whether the movie was dirty or clean or somewhere in between. Now, people can judge for themselves whether it’s up to their own standards for themselves and their families. It lets people take censorship back into their own hands.

  10. I remember taking in the re-released version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride on DVD into my preschool class for movie day, and being incredibly surprised when I saw it had been rated PG for ‘Stylized Villainy’…although to be fair, the weasels were pretty sleazy.

  11. Never seen Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, but I think it’s made my watch list for the PG rating for ‘swashbuckling violence and mild language’

  12. I’ve always gotten a kick out of Braveheart’s rating: R for Brutal Medieval Warfare. This isn’t just any kind of violence. No, it’s brutal; it’s medieval; and it’s war.

  13. I have watched This Film Not Yet Rated and it really opened my eyes to the whole rating system joke. It would be nice if it was changed, but I don’t think that is going to happen.

  14. “Blue Crush” (you know, the surfing movie with Michelle Rodriguez and Kate Bosworth) is “Rated PG-13 for sexual content, teen partying, language and a fight”. Not “fighting”, but “a fight”.

    “Team America” – “Rated R for graphic crude and sexual humor, violent images and strong language – all involving puppets”. What makes this one is the coda, especially the used of the dash.

    “Return of the King” has “epic battle sequences” – apparently the MPAA consider themselves critics now.

    “Heavenly Creatures” is rated R for “a chilling murder and some sexuality”. Since when is “sexuality” an issue for movies for grown-ups?

    “South Park” has “pervasive vulgar language”.

    This is my new favourite game.

    1. Heavenly Creatures probably got it’s “sexuality” rating because the sexuality was between two underage teenage girl characters. They probably should have been more specific on that one,actually. The movie would have been an R regardless on account of the parent murdering part, but the “sexuality” warning doesn’t necessarily make it clear that it’s going to be minors in a lesbian sexual relationship and there are adults that might normally find “sexuality” no big deal if it were between adult characters but not be comfortable with teen lesbian sexuality.

  15. Reminds me of how the re-releases of S1 of Sesame Street are rated M. Ratings systems are a joke, and then some people want the governemnt to actually enforce them…This just proves that people are idiots…makes me wonder what happened to all the nuclear radiation after all those underground tests in the western US.

    1. Thlom, “Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain” did have a bit where Amélie guesses how many people are having orgasms right at that moment (15 IIRC), and a crockery-rattling sex scene.

      1. I know, but I still don’t get the rating. It’s a sweet movie, suitable for everyone who has ever felt romantic love in one way or the other (everyone over the age of 10).

  16. Surely the BBFC’s description of A Knight’s Tale as containing “mild jousting” is worthy of a mention?

    Note to pedants: this is too good to check.

  17. my favourite rating is the one for Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana Best of Both Worlds 3D concert video. In the UK this has a ‘U’ rating meaning suitable for all, but even that needs clarification:
    “Contains no material likely to offend or harm”
    I beg to differ.

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