Family budgets: Make movie night safe again with family-friendly review sites

Around my house, we don't make the decision to pile into the car and head over to our local Cineplex as easily as we once did. It costs a lot of money these days to see talking animals, wild things and giant meatballs falling from the sky -- and don't get me started on the popcorn.

Going to see the latest kid's film use to be a no-brainer and if the adults slept through it, well, it didn't really matter, but no more. When a family of four has to pay a total of $40.50 to see a "regular" movie, or $56.50 to see that movie in digital 3D, or splurges to see that same movie in digital 3D playing on the "giant" IMAX screen for a whopping $60.50, it suddenly becomes very important that everyone is at least mildly amused or entertained.

To buy tickets to all of the new movies coming out would cost literally hundreds of dollars, and if you throw in drinks and snacks -- there goes college. How to find one that's family-friendly and worth the expense?

Movie reviews for kids are not new, but they are getting increasingly relevant as families demand more of a sure-bet for their entertainment budget. It's impossible to promise that everyone will like a movie, but if you know who to listen to there will be more hits than misses.

Most of the websites are free, such as Kids-in-Mind., Commonsensemedia, Parentpreviews, and Moviemom.

Screenit requires a $24.95 fee per year but boasts an endorsement from Roger Ebert who called it, "One of the top 5 most useful movie sites on the internet." Screenit quantifies each movie according to 15 areas of parental concerns including, "jump scenes" for the kind of surprises that make parents jump out of their seats.

A good friend of mine took her family to see Disney's new A Christmas Carol, and were shocked at how scary it was. Even their middle-school son was cringing, while they're younger son spent most of the movie with his face buried in her shoulder. If she had checked out and read a description of A Christmas Carol before heading to the theater their weekend may have turned out differently. Not because A Christmas Carol is a bad movie, but because it was destined to be a bad movie for them.

The site explained, "This script is decidedly more intense than many of the other animated versions. The opening scenes depict a dead body in a casket." In a summary of the movie they note, "The intense depictions of red-eyed horses chasing a man through the narrow streets of London and an ominous stopover at a desolate graveyard (where Scrooge falls into an open grave) are also startling for viewers, especially for young audience members more familiar with the cartoonish, watered down versions of this weighty tale. Other scenes of ghoulish characters that decay and disintegrate on screen and a macabre doorknocker up the scare factor of this film too, likely making it inappropriate for many children."

Okaaaaay...thanks, Disney. gave A Christmas Carol an A- and praised the amazing technology. The site also noted that the movie dealt with "class issues" in the area of diversity, and "drinking" (a holiday toast) in the drugs and alcohol category. As for violence/scariness, blogger Nell Minow of Moviemom wrote, "Some very gruesome images, characters in peril, sad and spooky deaths."

One of the sites I like to check out is This site provides parents with objective, complete information so they can decide "based on their own value system" whether to watch a movie with or without their kids. Although it's a free site, there is the option of paying for a "premium subscriber membership" that allows users to read reviews earlier than non-subscribers -- and without annoying ads. Members can choose to pay $12, $24 or $36 per year for the membership (there is no difference between different levels). Kids-in-Mind rates movies in three distinct areas: sex & nudity, violence & gore, and profanity. Each rating is on a scale of zero to ten depending on quantity (more "F" words equal a higher number) as well as context. In addition to these ratings, the site also details exactly why a film rates high or low in a specific category - sometimes in almost absurdly excruciating detail.

In regard to A Christmas Carol, Kids-in-Mind gave it a "1.3.3." rating, meaning level one for sex & nudity, level 3 for violence & gore, and level 3 for profanity. This site is not for those who don't want to know exactly what happens, so spoiler alert!

Among the detailed listing of events in the area of violence, Kids-in-Mind writes about the ghosts, " is a tall black-robed faceless entity with black skeletal arms and fingers; a man appears frightened, grimacing, shaking, trembling, stuttering, yelling, crying and displaying shock." Another description: "A ghost gives off gray vapors and floats around a room, breaks his jaw open accidentally, a long tongue hangs out and he works and adjusts his jaw with his hands. An elderly man tries to enter his house and the doorknocker becomes a ghostly head: it roars, and the man is knocked backward down a flight of steps, unhurt."

Kids-in-Mind is clearly critical of the MPAA rating system that provides the G, PG, PG13-type ratings that we have all become accustomed to using. They describe the process as a "cozy" relationship between the MPAA, studios and theater chains who they believe use the system to their own advantage -- and not that of the consumer.

The ever-increasing costs of making movies and watching movies raises the stakes for everyone. Film makers are going to do their best to get us to see their latest blockbuster or lackluster production. But we are far from powerless.

In addition to the old-fashioned, over-the-fence movie review from a trusty neighbor, there are now even more sophisticated ways to know before you go. So silence your cell phones, and I'll see you at the movies.

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