Disney's 'Lion King' and the Death of the G Rating

Rami Niemi
Illustration by Rami Niemi

Once applied to rom-coms and sci-fi, the "general audience" label is now barely used, even by Disney: "Unless it's Pixar, it's not cool."

For a movie that stars a spork, Toy Story 4 is in a rarefied group. The Pixar-Disney sequel, which has made $1 billion worldwide since it opened in June, is one of only two G-rated wide release films so far this year. The other — the nature documentary Penguins — is also from Disney.

In fact, Disney is the last major Hollywood studio still actively in the G, or "general audience," business. While still common for documentaries, the rating hasn't been applied to another studio's wide release since Fox's The Peanuts Movie made $246 million in 2015 — and it hasn't gone to a live-action film since Fox's live-action/animation hybrid Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked made $343 million in 2011.

Studios are deliberately gearing family films toward PG ratings, which marketers have determined are less likely to alienate the teens and tweens whose tastes drive much of the box office. Companies face less backlash from parents when films are rated more restrictively, says former MPAA ratings chief Joan Graves, who retired in May. "Parents care more at the lower level," adds Graves, "when they're more involved with what their children see and do and copy."

Other studios have dropped G movies, but Disney can still make a hit of one in part because audiences expect sophistication from its animated films, says Jon Lewis, Oregon State University professor of film studies. "For adults it makes no difference, but for 13-to-16-year-olds, if it's G, unless it's Pixar, it's not cool," he says. "Pixar movies are perfectly hip and acceptable because they operate on multiple levels."

Though it has fallen out of favor in the last decade, the G rating was once common in a variety of genres — from the 1972 Barbra Streisand romantic comedy What's Up, Doc? to 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It wasn't until the aughts that G became Disney-only territory, though 10 out of 10 of the highest-grossing G-rated movies of all time domestically belong to the studio, with its 1994 animated version of The Lion King at the top with $423 million. (The new CGI Lion King is rated PG, as have been all of Disney's live-action remakes of its animated films.)

"It's the distributors who have driven this, not the ratings board," says Jason Squire, professor of cinematic practice at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. "The studios prefer the PG-13 rating [over G] because it protects them. 'Parents strongly cautioned': It shifts the burden of determining what's acceptable to the parent."

Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.