What’s Wrong with Disney Feature Animation? – Part 2
MERCHANDISE VS. MEDIA
The 1990’s and 2000’s saw a massive rise in Disney’s merchandising efforts, such as the extremely successful launch of the Disney Princesses franchise itself. One might even argue that Disney is now essentially a merchandising company that makes its own media, rather than a media company that makes its own merchandise. Disney Princesses itself is a marketing and merchandising conceit launched in the 90’s which has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams.
One of the factoids that’s hard to reconcile with the disappointing box office is that The Princess and the Frog‘s heroine Tiana was outselling Ariel, Disney Princesses’ top seller, before the movie was even released. What happened to all those girls who were buying Tiana stuff? My theory is that the success of Disney Princesses as a merchandising phenomenon actually worked against The Princess and the Frog at the box office because all those girls buying stuff in stores didn’t bother to see the movie in theaters. Disney Princesses has done such a good job at convincing them to buy Princess stuff that the movies as movies have become largely incidental in their concerns.
However, if this is true, then I would expect sales of The Princess and the Frog on DVD to be much, much stronger than its disappointing box office would suggest. The DVD and/or Blu-ray is more important as merchandise than as a movie — it’s simply the latest Disney Princess stuff that all those little girls have to have next, even if a lot of those same little girls skipped out on the movie in theaters. If this is true, then it would also mean that Disney made a mistake by not putting out a really splashy, frilly, super special edition DVD for stores. The current release is decent, but it isn’t one of those full two-disc special edition packed to the gills with bonus features for those girls to buy (or compel their parents to buy).
Again, this theory doesn’t explain the box office of the earlier two movies, but it does explain the success of the Tinker Bell movies, which are being treated more as Disney Fairies merchandise than as movies. It means that Disney has succeeded so well at these marketing and merchandising initiatives that they have managed to put the cart before the horse, but these franchises are valuable enough now that they can’t really change gears without essentially throwing giant piles of money away. However, this might mean that the next Disney Princesses movie might do better as a direct-to-video instead.
FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT
Disney takes justifiable pride in ensuring that visitors to the theme parks will have an extremely managed experience from start to finish, with no unpleasant surprises or disappointments. You know exactly what you’re in for with a visit to Disneyland or Disney World. The same sort of attitude has extended to its movies: the Disney brand name means safe, quality entertainment that’s suitable for the whole family to enjoy.
The thought behind this explanation is that Disney has succeeded so well at branding itself in this way that they have drained any sense of urgency to run and see the movies in theaters. Meet the Robinsons was a fairly conventional family film that came off as chaotic and disjointed in the previews, and even the best reviews of Bolt and The Princess and the Frog noted that both films were extremely formulaic and predictable. The idea is that audiences picked up on that early on and opted to skip out on the movies themselves. As good as these movies were, Disney’s home video library has more than enough movies that can do the same thing. More than anything else, Disney is “safe,” but “safe” is being translated into boring and predictable in the minds of the moviegoing public. The only possibility of saving The Princess and the Frog on home video is the link to Disney Princesses mentioned above, in the hopes that little girls treat it more like merchandise than a movie.
This is the only working theory I have that attempts to explain the box office disappointments of Bolt and Meet the Robinsons as well as The Princess and the Frog, although now Tinker Bell is the anomaly. Again, though, she may be more important as a recognizable icon to one of the Disney classics.
Unfortunately, after all is said and done, I don’t find that I’ve come much closer to answering the question I asked at the outset. It’s possible that all three of Disney Feature Animation’s box office disappointments were just all vicious coincidences, with no common factor tying any of them together. However, I think Disney made the right decision for the wrong reasons in their approach to Rapunzel/Tangled. In my opinion, the changes from Rapunzel to Tangled won’t help because they might attract boys. It’s because it will make the movie look more like Enchanted, the last successful Disney Princess film (even if Giselle isn’t an actual Disney Princess).
The trailers for Enchanted clearly showed that Disney was willing to stand the typical Disney Princess film on its head, even if the final product was more of an homage than a straight-up parody. It handily defeated the “Familiarity Breeds Contempt” arguments above, and distanced itself far enough from the Disney Princesses merchandising juggernaut to stand on its own as a movie. One might even argue that it held appeal to boys because Amy Adams, in addition to turning in a star-making performance as Giselle, is a world-class hottie. The bottom line is that tossing out the usual Disney Princess playbook (or at least looking like they were tossing out the usual Disney Princess playbook) seemed to produce a $127 million box office take on an $85 million investment.
Everything that they are doing with Rapunzel seems like it will make it look more like Enchanted than anything else. It would be highly ironic if the secret to making a successful Disney animated film is to do everything possible to not make it look like a Disney animated film. Time will tell whether the gamble will pay off.