In packed movie theaters across America, you can sometimes hear the sound of small children crying. The culprit? The scary scenes in PG-13-rated box office juggernaut Batman Returns, which is rapidly passing the $100 million mark and which kids, lured by a massive ad campaign by McDonald's and diet Coke, are clamoring to see. The problem is that the Happy Meals that McDonald's offers as a tie-in to the Warner Bros. movie don't make clear the film's darker side including the electrocution of a villain, circus clowns gunning down innocent victims, and the kidnapping and threatened murder of children.
Not surprisingly, many parents who have ignored the movie's rating (''Some material may be inappropriate for pre-teenagers'') to take their young children to see Batman Returns are seeing red. Their complaints began hitting the media last week in a Batlash that's still growing. NBC reporter Faith Daniels was scheduled to devote the July 3 episode of her talk show, A Closer Look With Faith Daniels, to ''Parents Against Batman Returns.'' Adds Daniels, who refused to take her 5-year-old son to see the movie, ''It's fine to make Batman Returns an adult film, but don't market it to kids. It's rated PG-13, but who's buying the action toys? Not 13-year-olds.'' The Los Angeles Times published letters last week that protested ''one violent image after another.'' ''Has McDonald's no conscience?'' another letter asked. Meanwhile, the Michigan-based Dove Foundation, a nonsectarian Christian organization, has protested the McDonald's Happy Meal promotion, designed for children 1 to 10. ''Parents...trust McDonald's,'' says a Dove spokesman. ''So why is McDonald's promoting a movie to little kids that's filled with gratuitous graphic violence?''
McDonald's, stung by the criticism, is trying to downplay the connection between Batman Returns and the Happy Meal promotion, set to end this week. Says McDonald's spokeswoman Rebecca Caruso, ''The objective of the (Happy Meal) program was to allow young people to experience the fun of Batman the character. It was not designed to promote attendance at the movie. It was certainly not our intent to confuse parents or disappoint children.''
Warner Bros. also claims that the Happy Meal promotion isn't tied to the movie but to the 53-year-old Batman character. ''We were careful not to provide actual toys from the movie,'' says a Warner spokeswoman. She insists that Batman Returns is rated responsibly in comparison with other PG movies, like Hook and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which also were considered not suitable for young children. ''Clearly Batman is not meant for 5-year-olds. As for whether it's appropriate to Happy Meals, that's up to McDonald's. We don't tell them their business.''
But despite claims to the contrary, advertisers who wanted to ride along on Batman's cape wound up hawking the movie as well as their own products. And critics point out that selling Batman to the superyoung also promotes Warner's upcoming Batman cartoon show, debuting Sept. 7 on Fox. What's a parent to do? ''If I had small kids,'' says L.A. Times film critic Kenneth Turan, ''I wouldn't want them to see the movie.''