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I took my son to "A Christmas Carol," and...

From Paul Clark, Columbus, Ohio:

Regarding Robert Zemeckis’ "A Christmas Carol." First off, let me say that I liked the movie a lot. As a lover of Dickens’ story, I’ve seen more than my share of "Christmas Carol" adaptations in my time, both good and bad. Consequently, I appreciated the way Zemeckis didn’t simply turn it into just another serving of Christmas comfort food. After all, Dickens’ "Christmas Carol" can be pretty stern stuff in parts, and Zemeckis didn’t shy away from the darker material that made the original such a classic.

But while I enjoyed the darker (and dare I say, more Dickensian) take on the material, I cannot say the same for my son. At eight years old, he has been exposed to one or two adaptations of the story himself, and as a fan of "The Polar Express" he was eager to see "A Christmas Carol" made in the same style. My girlfriend and I looked at numerous reviews of the film including yours, and there was no indication in what we read to suggest that the film was inappropriate for him. PG-rated movies are generally not a problem for him, and he can even handle a good number of releases that have received the PG-13. Aside from a few glimpses of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, nothing in the advertising for the film suggested that this would be any different.

However, when we took him to "A Christmas Carol," he was terrified. The first fifteen minutes or so were fine, but that quickly changed once Marley paid his visit to Scrooge. Zemeckis stages the scene (quite effectively) as horror, and the portrayal of Marley feels more like something out of an early Peter Jackson movie than a family-friendly Disney release. By the time Zemeckis showed us the dozens if not hundreds of other spirits floating over London, our son was curled up in his seat covering his eyes, and we took him home shortly after that. Believe me- he had plenty of nightmares for the next few nights. As for me, I returned the next day by myself to see the rest of the movie, and there were multiple scenes that came after the point in the film at which we had originally left (Ignorance and Want, the demise of the Ghost of Christmas Present, and so on) that I’m glad he didn’t have to see.

Now, please understand that I don’t blame you or any other critics for not mentioning how intense the movie was. After all, you were reviewing the movie on the screen, not the way it compared with the expectations set up for it by its MPAA rating, its marketing campaign, and so on. And I certainly don’t bear Zemeckis any ill will- his job as a director was to make the best version of the story he could in the style of his choosing, and on that level I’d say he succeeded. However, I fault Disney for misleading ticket buyers into thinking "A Christmas Carol" was a Yuletide classic for the whole family to enjoy, and selling it aggressively to children who might not be prepared for how intense it is. Right or wrong, there are certain expectations for a movie that is marketed as "Disney’s A Christmas Carol" and for the Disney name in general, and these expectations certainly don’t include a ghost’s jaw suddenly breaking loose in mid-monologue.

Likewise, I can’t help but wonder whether the film’s rating might not have been a little misleading. As Kirby Dick stated in his documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," the MPAA has historically been far more lenient with their ratings of studio releases than with independent films, and surely there must have been some pressure to bring Disney’s holiday blockbuster in with a PG rating. I don’t doubt that the animation was a factor as well, since it’s hard to imagine some of the scenes passing muster in a live-action film.

Whatever the case, it appears that the PG rating is far broader than I could have possibly anticipated. Because of this, I will have to use other criteria for selecting movies for my family to see in the future. I wish I had the time and money to pre-screen every family release, but as you know times are tough. Therefore, I’m writing to see if you might be able to steer me toward some web sites that reliably evaluate the family-friendliness of current Hollywood releases, that I can use to aid my moviegoing decisions in conjunction with the critics I currently read and trust. As movie lover and a parent, I’d love to pass my love of cinema on to my son, and I fear that making the same mistake again that I made with "A Christmas Carol" could discourage this. But more importantly, I don’t ever want to see him curled up in a ball from terror again, whether in a movie theatre or anywhere else.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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