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What's Wrong with Disney Feature Animation? - Part 1

“There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”

– H.L. Mencken

What’s wrong with Walt Disney Feature Animation?

The Princess and the Frog‘s $24.2 million opening weekend and $104 million total box office take (which comes $1 million short of covering its production costs) was a major box-office disappointment for Disney. By comparison, the competing Alvin and the Chipmunks sequel racked up more in its first two weeks than The Princess and the Frog made in its entire theatrical run, while Disney/Pixar’s Up made nearly triple the amount domestically and well over three times as much when international box office receipts are accounted for.

In response to the lukewarm reception to The Princess and the Frog, The Los Angeles Times reports on the many changes in marketing Rapunzel, the next animated feature from Disney coming later this year, starting by changing its title to Tangled and going on to emphasize the high adventure aspects added to the original fairy tale. The article confirms many long-running rumors, stating that Ed Catmull and the executives at Disney have determined that the major factor behind The Princess and the Frog‘s disappointing box office was an absence of boys in the theaters, who apparently decided from the pre-release marketing that the movie had nothing to offer them.

I have always been impressed by Catmull’s combination of technical, artistic, and business savvy, especially when so many Hollywood executives show little or no skill in even one of those fields. However, in this case, I think he and Disney have come up with one of Mencken’s easy, neat, plausible, and wrong answers. While aiming to make movies for a wide audience is an admirable goal, I don’t think it’s strictly necessary for box office success. The Twilight series has little appeal for boys, but that hasn’t seemed to harm its box office results. Much closer to home for Disney, the Tinker Bell direct-to-video movies are also targeted strongly at girls over boys, and they have been a success story for Disney. Furthermore, The Los Angeles Times states that Disney Princesses raked in $3.7 billion in retail sales last year. How much of that do you think was sold to boys? If you assume each girl averaged the astronomical sum of $1,000 on Disney Princess stuff last year, that still comes out to a potential audience of 3.7 million girls, all clearly rabid enough to spend ridiculous sums of money on Disney Princesses. It might be true that boys didn’t care for The Princess and the Frog, but I can’t see why that would actually matter.

In addition, Disney’s conclusion shows a lack of institutional memory for events in the very near past. Walt Disney Feature Animation’s last release was Bolt, a charming and very well done movie that opened with a disappointing $26 million weekend and ended with $114 million domestically, far short of its reported $150 million production budget. Meet the Robinsons wasn’t as creatively successful as either Bolt or The Princess and the Frog, but was still a rather enjoyable and watchable movie. It also made about $25 million in its opening weekend, and while its production budget isn’t readily available, I’d be surprised if the $97 million it made domestically covered it. In sum, The Princess and the Frog isn’t an anomaly, but only the latest in a string of well-made box office disappointments. Even if their conclusion that The Princess and the Frog didn’t appeal to boys is correct, I don’t think it’s sufficient to answer what’s wrong with Disney Feature Animation because it doesn’t address the earlier failures, nor does it explain the success of the Tinker Bell direct-to-video animated movies.

With Mencken’s quote in the forefront of my mind, I can toss out a few alternative answers over The Princess and the Frog‘s disappointing box office, and that of Disney Feature Animation in general:

THE RACE FACTOR

Disney wanted to eat its cake and have it, too, ensuring we all knew that Tiana was the First Black Princess while also trying to make sure we all knew that this wasn’t just a movie for black people and that her race was only incidental. To their credit, they handle the subject quite nimbly in the movie, especially considering the well-documented difficulties over racial issues Disney has had in the past. Even so, I suspect that there probably were some people who didn’t want to see The Princess and the Frog simply because Tiana was black, but I also can’t believe that enough of them would stay away to lead to such disappointing box office. Similarly, most of the voices criticizing the movie well before its release (and the voices criticizing the critics) seem to have died away on its release; while there seemed to be no organized boycott or criticism of the movie from the black community, it also doesn’t seem like they turned out in very great numbers to see it, either. In the end, I don’t believe that race helped or hindered The Princess and the Frog at the box office in any significant way.

This explanation also obviously explains nothing about the lackluster box office for Bolt and Meet the Robinsons.

HAND-DRAWN ANIMATION AND THE BOX OFFICE

The good news is that nobody on Wall Street or Disney’s corporate headquarters is trotting out the common excuse during the 90′s and 00′s that an animated movie failed because it was hand-drawn. As John Lasseter has said on multiple occasions, hand-drawn animation was just used as a scapegoat for poor storytelling. The bad news is that no matter how idiotic the reasoning was by executives and financial analysts at the time, their decisions led to an entire generation for whom “animated feature film” means “CGI.”

So, I may be committing animation sacrilege by wondering if its hand-drawn animation did play a part in The Princess and the Frog‘s disappointing box office. Is it possible that hand-drawn animation has become comparable to black-and-white film? There is a non-trivial chunk of America that will not watch a movie in black-and-white, and the fact that they will be missing out on some of the greatest movies ever made doesn’t seem to bother them as much as the absence of color. Even taking its limited release into account, the box office results of Ponyo also seemed rather disappointing, serving as another anecdotal data point for this possibility.
Both movies are eloquent artistic statements on the value of hand-drawn animation, and neither one seems to have made much impact with the American moviegoing public. There’s something rather upsetting about that thought.

Of course, even if this explanation is true (and I’m not convinced that it is), it also does nothing to explain Bolt or Meet the Robinsons.

THE REVERSE-HALO EFFECT

Fans of animation and/or Disney all know that the studio churned out some real stinkers during the late 90′s and early 2000′s: the mediocre-to-awful direct-to-video sequels, well-animated but underwhelming movies like Treasure Planet, and films that probably would have been better off forgotten on the shelf like Home on the Range. No matter who you choose to blame for them, those disappointing movies mean that Disney Feature Animation is working under a significant negative halo effect, with audiences assuming the movies are bad until proven otherwise. Under this theory, Meet the Robinsons, Bolt, and The Princess and the Frog are still paying for very bad executive decisions of the prior administration — an object lesson in what happens when you start valuing franchises and marketing over the quality of the entertainment.

This is a convenient explanation, and if its accurate, then Disney probably still has a lot of work to do to counterbalance the bad movie karma it was generating for so many years. Working against this theory is the success of Tinker Bell, although one might argue that she’s being grandfathered in consumers’ minds as “Old Disney” for being a Peter Pan character.

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