The L.A. Times had an interesting story this weekend about Disney and their upcoming movie “Tangled.” The movie, a retelling of the Rapunzel story, comes out tomorrow; it will also be the last fairy tale produced by Disney’s animation department for a good long while.
It’s an interesting read for a variety of reasons. The animated “princess movies” have been Disney’s bread and butter since “Snow White” in 1937. But the years of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle and Jasmine dominating at the box office is long gone. Their most recent attempt to regain the princess-driven mojo, last year’s “The Princess and the Frog,” underperformed.
In the age of mega-franchises when movies need to appeal to a broad audience to justify a sizable investment, Disney discovered too late that “Princess and the Frog” appealed to too narrow an audience: little girls. This prompted the studio to change the name of its Rapunzel movie to the gender-neutral “Tangled” and shift the lens of its marketing to the film’s swashbuckling male costar, Flynn Rider.
Disney hopes “Tangled” will draw boys, teenagers and adults to the theater, succeeding where its frog-prince saga failed. But it’s taking no such chances in the future.
The big performers for Disney these days all have something in common:
Now, different kinds of Disney characters are elbowing their way into the megaplexes and toy aisles, including Pixar’s “Toy Story” buddies Buzz Lightyear and Woody, Capt. Jack Sparrow from “Pirates of the Caribbean” and a platoon of superheroes from the recent acquisition of Marvel Entertainment.
Yep, the common theme stands out a bit: gender. The princess movies don’t succeed as much because no guys (young or old) have an interest in seeing them, and young males are considered the driving forces of box office revenue. Plus, the notion of princesses (and what those movies represented) is outdated:
Among girls, princesses and the romanticized ideal they represent — revolving around finding the man of your dreams — have a limited shelf life. With the advent of “tween” TV, the tiara-wearing ideal of femininity has been supplanted by new adolescent role models such as the Disney Channel’s Selena Gomez and Nickelodeon’s Miranda Cosgrove.
“By the time they’re 5 or 6, they’re not interested in being princesses,” said Dafna Lemish, chairwoman of the radio and TV department at Southern Illinois University and an expert in the role of media in children’s lives. “They’re interested in being hot, in being cool. Clearly, they see this is what society values.”
MGA Entertainment, the maker of Bratz dolls, knocked the toy industry’s blond bombshell off her stilettos by recognizing how little girls’ interests have morphed.
Disney can spin the failure of traditional animated films any way they want, but the issue isn’t just the princess movies. The issue is the movies themselves. The old-fashioned hand-drawn animated films reached their zenith in 1994 with “The Lion King,” and the next year “Toy Story” came out and rewrote the book on animation. Sure, there were some moderate hits (“Tarzan,” “Lilo & Stitch”). But the era of these films being megahits was over. The fault wasn’t the gender of the central characters (see: “Treasure Planet,” “The Iron Giant” and “Titan A.E.”). The problem was the films themselves, which lacked the storytelling oomph to raise their profile above just “Oh, some old-fashioned animated movies, how quaint.”
But there’s a broader problem here, and that’s the dual suggestions that A) Movies aimed at little girls are not worth the investment and B) If they want to reach little girls, they need to reach them like the execrable Bratz dolls do.
Call me crazy, but I don’t think movies like “Up” succeed because there’s a big audience for movies centered on crotchety old men. That movie succeeded because it was a Pixar film, which meant it came from filmmakers of great talent who had delivered great films in the past. Wouldn’t it solve all of the problems for Pixar to just center a movie around a female character (not even a princess, but simply a lady of some sort)? Oh, right.