Frankly, I'm personally convinced that a major culprit was simply picking the wrong release date and/or bad timing. Attempting to emulate the successful platform releases of the 1990s, Disney released The Princess and the Frog on two screens over Thanksgiving weekend. For the next two weeks, it played only in those two high-end (as in too expensive to bring my daughter) New York City and Los Angeles venues before going wide on December 12th. Alas, unlike the 1990s, entertainment news travels faster than the speed of sound, with the next big thing supplanting the previous 'big thing' within a few days. Most of the media coverage (and probable audience interest) took place over that Thanksgiving weekend. Heck, I participated in two radio interviews over the holiday concerning the racial and gender politics of the film (along with New Moon and Precious). Amusingly, not a single person in front of or behind the microphone had yet seen the Disney animated film. By the time the film finally went wide, the movie world had moved on. In fact, the film had the misfortune to open the day after that 'holy god, it's great!' first critics screening of Avatar. The all-audiences/both-genders mega-smash dominated the entertainment media for the next month afterward. Disney also severely underestimated the appeal of Alvin and the Chipmunks 2, figuring that discerning parents would choose perceived quality over familiarity.
Point being, there are any number of reasons why The Princess and the Frog 'underwhelmed'. We can argue that the media trumpeted the film's racial and gender politics to a point where it scared off families not wanting a sociology lesson with their popcorn. We can argue that boys were not interested in a film about a princess and girls felt pandered to. We can argue that everyone who had the slightest reason not to see the movie all decided to see Avatar instead. Or we can simply acknowledge that this was Disney's first high-profile 2D film in nearly six years and their highest-grossing such project in nearly eight years (Lilo and Stitch grossed $146 million in summer 2002). It was a warm-up pitch, an attempt to reignite audience excitement in the old fashioned hand-drawn animation style that Disney built its empire on. No one should have expected Aladdin-type numbers ($212 million domestic) the first time out. I sincerely hope that Disney does not panic and cancel every planned 2D project in the pipeline or attempt to 'masculate' their upcoming animated films. To quote my favorite film of the last decade, Disney should just keep moving forward.