Disney and the Films Ratings Game

July 21, 2023

Written by: Jim Smith

Throughout Disney’s history, family-friendly entertainment has been the name of the game. Countless G-rated films – both animated and live-action – were produced before the first non-G-rated Disney film ever came to be.

But as public preferences changed in the 1970s, Disney was forced to change with the times. The first Disney film to carry a PG rating was 1979’s The Black Hole (the space property Disney chose to pursue at the time, instead of Star Wars). The film was rated PG due to the frequent use of the words “hell” and “damn” as well as the violent death of the character Dr. Alex Durant.

Image: Disney

Michael Eisner, who took the mantle as CEO of the Walt Disney Company in 1984, led the charge for more adult-oriented entertainment options. Films were the first order of business, as they were easier to change quickly than the theme parks.

In 1985 – a year into Eisner’s tenure – Disney released its first animated film with a PG rating – The Black Cauldron. The film’s dark nature and violence earned the PG rating.

Image: Disney

Disney’s first R-rated film wasn’t far behind, with the 1986 release of Down and Out in Beverly Hills. This comedy was underlain with sexual overtones as well as a fair amount of adult language. Unsurprisingly, this film was released under Disney’s sub-label Touchstone Pictures.

Image: Disney

In the 1980s, complaints about violence and gore in films such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins (both of which received PG ratings), focused attention on films seen by small children and preteens. There was a protection gap in between PG and R, whereby some material wasn’t suitable for children, yet the film may not be deserving of being slapped with an audience-limiting R rating. Legendary film director and producer Steven Spielberg, who helped create Temple of Doom and Gremlins, suggested a new intermediate rating between PG and R. Hence, the PG-13 rating was introduced in 1984. However, Disney’s first PG-13 film didn’t come about until almost 20 years later, with the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Image: Disney

While Disney still brands itself as family-friendly entertainment, the waters are a little more muddy nowadays with some of the edgier material produced under Marvel Studios, and other material released under affiliated streaming services such as Hulu.

Where will the future of cinema take us and our children? That remains to be seen. Just remember to “read the label.”

Do you remember the first edgy Disney film you saw? Chime in, either with a comment here or on social:

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