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Disney's Cancellation of The Little Mermaid 3D Leaves the Mouse House Light on Female-targeted Movies

01/23/2013 12:32 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2013

From a business standpoint, one could argue the logic of Disney's surprise cancellation of the planned September reissue of The Little Mermaid.  The 3D reissues, which started with The Lion King back in September 2011 peaked to an absurd degree with that blockbuster rerelease ($94 million domestic alone).  The respective grosses for Beauty and the Beast ($47 million), Finding Nemo ($41 million), and finally Monsters Inc. ($31 million) trended ever downward to the point where the flop 3D reissue of Monsters Inc. probably didn't even break even when you account for prints and merchandising.  

I would argue that Disney dropped the ball by moving the Monsters Inc. reissue from January (where we have absolutely nothing for kids to see during the first six weeks or so of the year) to the already brutally crowded Christmas season where it was crowded out by the holiday releases and the still strong Wreck It Ralph and Rise of the Guardians (which should be crossing $100 million domestic in the next couple days). I would also argue that The Little Mermaid, which has the same nostalgia factor as The Lion King and has not yet been released on Blu Ray while going for around $50 on Amazon for the 2006 DVD, is a likelier contender to get parents into the theater than Monsters Inc.  

 But that aside, Disney obviously thinks that the 3D reissue is an idea whose time came and went at record speed. And while we may champion the apparent quick death of the whole 3D reissue fad, which will likely live or die on how well Jurassic Park 3D performs in April, it does leave a pretty big hole in Disney's release schedule.  A company that made its billions partially by catering to young females has now set its course for young boys almost exclusively.  If you look at Disney's release schedule over the next two years, you'll see a clear pattern.  Not only does pretty much every film target young audiences, they are almost exclusively geared toward boys.  For 2013 and 2014, Disney has a steady slate of either hardcore boy-centric entertainments (Planes, The Lone Ranger, Need For Speed) or male-driven genre that may or may not appeal to women as well (Oz: The Great and PowerfulIron Man 3, The Muppets 2), along with one token girl-centric entry per given calendar year (and one theoretically adult-targeted year-end prestige picture).  Yes the 'token girl movie' is one of the bigger pictures in each respective calendar year, but it is still one versus many.

For 2013, the big female-centric picture is Frozen, the new Disney film that centers around a young girl searching for her missing sister.  The Thanksgiving release is co-directed by Jennifer Lee who will hopefully be the first female director to start *and* finish a major animated feature at Disney.  The one somewhat adult-skewing film is Saving Mr. Banks, a film about the making of Mary Poppins which features Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.  For 2014 it's Maleficent, a big-budget live-action version of Sleeping Beauty.  The July 2014 release stars Angelina Jolie as Maleficent (from whose point-of-view the film will be told) and Elle Fanning as 'Sleeping Beauty.'  It's being helmed by first-time director Robert Stromberg, a long-time special effects supervisor who has been handed a major big-budget feature for his first go-around (but that's a subject for another day).  The one adult-skewing entry in 2014 appears to be Brad Bird's 1952, a mysterious sci-fi project that stars George Clooney.  In 2015 the picture gets a little shadier, since any number of would-be releases have yet to be scheduled or even announced.  But the female-centric outlier that year appears to be Inside Out, which is Pixar's "Movie That Takes You Inside the Mind."  The story, which involves a journey into a young girl's brain, opens in June of 2015.

Other than that, it's basically boys' adventure stories from here on out, with the likes of the various Marvel movies, a big-screen version of Phineas and Ferb, and another Pirates of the Caribbean film.  Of course, I've long argued that the initial three Pirates of the Caribbean films triumphed with both genders because they basically told the story of Elizabeth Swann with Jack Sparrow merely playing a supporting role, but On Stranger Tides did not continue that trend in any way, shape, or form.  This is not to say that Phineas and Ferb isn't A) awesome and B) inherently unappealing to females or that the Marvel movies don't pull in relatively even gender demos.  But the studio that basically made its name on female-centric animated features has basically continued their post-Pirates of the Caribbean/National Treasure quest to chase the boy audience even at the arguable expense of their seemingly core demographic. It's not just the movies either, as the theme parks have made efforts to appeal to the boys tagging along with their sisters at the various amusement parks.  Disney's California Adventure now has Cars Land while Disney World has just opened a flurry of new attractions while they emphasize the boy-friendly nature of portions such as Gaston's Castle.

Of course, what's occurring at the parks is less of a concern as it's not like the female-centric material is being closed or hustled into the corner to make way for Radiator Springs.  And let's be fair, female-driven television shows absolutely dominate the Disney Channel line up, be it younger-skewing shows like the genuinely delightful Doc McStuffins (which I would pick as the best preschool-targeted cartoon since Dora the Explorer) the new Sophia The First: Once Upon A Princess or the various afternoon shows aimed at older girls (Shake It Up, Austin and Ally, and Jessie among many others). I do think it's interesting that Disney knows that it can sell just as much princess merchandise using a new television show (which, while well-written, isn't exactly an example of peerless animation and something that screams 'prestigious' or 'high priority') as it could with the kind of princess/fairy tale animated feature that they swear they've sworn off.  It would seem the pattern is clear: boys dominate the movies while girls get their share of Disney television, with the girl-centric properties holding less prestige in Hollywood.

I wrote about this amusing trend back in early 2012 when discussing John Carter, and it appears that Disney is still dead-set on appealing to the boys.  Say what you will about female geeks/nerds, but Disney didn't buy Marvel or Lucasfilm in order to ensnare female Avengers fans or Star Wars junkies.  Brand expansion is normal and arguably healthy.  Disney knows it has the market cornered in female toys and female franchise characters, so it's attempting to strengthen its hold on boys as well.  The issue at hand is whether or not they are pushing away the female demographic and doubling-down on boys rather than merely make products to serve both genders with relative equality in all of their media platforms.