05/15/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Disney Ditches Their Princess Label

As the LA Times reported about a week ago, Disney's upcoming Rapunzel (see the teaser) cartoon has undergone a gender-neutral makeover in response to the (comparatively) disappointing box office take of The Princess and the Frog.  In short, they are changing the title to the gender non-specific name Tangled and beefing up the role of the male romantic interest, who is now a swashbuckling heartthrob who will no doubt engage in several gratuitous action sequences.  Don't worry, I'm sure our heroine will get to throw a condescending 'girl-power' punch or two.  Apparently the bosses at Burbank have concluded that the sole reason for the underwhelming box office haul of The Princess and the Frog was that it had the word 'princess' in its title and thus scared away the boys.   While that might be a little insulting, it cannot be completely dismissed out of hand.  While Disney has had countless female-driven cartoons over their lifetime, most of the recent ones where not marketed as 'princess fantasies'.

Mulan was sold as an epic action picture, Lilo and Stitch was a comedy/drama about a family in peril and a trouble-making monster, even The Little Mermaid was a coming-of-age fable about teenage independence.  For better or worse, The Princess and the Frog was the first modern Disney cartoon that was marketed as a 'chick flick'.  It's no secret that girls are conditioned to see girl movies and boy movies while boys are conditioned to avoid having to sit through 'mushy chick-flicks'.  It's why so many male-driven tent-pole flicks do whatever they can to advertise any hint of romance or 'female empowerment moments' that can be found in movies such as Transformers or Iron Man.  Even the most misogynistic horror film will often conclude its trailer with a shot of a female character attacking the monster or killer in question.  In order to do business above a certain ceiling, stereotypical 'guy' movies need to draw in a healthy chunk of the female audience as well.  Conversely, the common wisdom is that a film relying purely on female ticket goers have a severe glass ceiling.  There are several exceptions in any given year (Sex and the City, Mamma Mia!, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, etc), but they are always chalked up as flukes.  Disney thinks its non-Pixar projects are losing box office ground because boys aren't interested, so they are tossing the 'princess' moniker that has made them so much money over the last ten years.

As someone who really enjoyed The Princess and the Frog (it comes out on DVD/Blu Ray today, hence the timing of this essay), I was at a loss as to why it did not do better.  At $212 million worldwide ($104 million in the US), it was no bomb, but I think that Disney was hoping for something a little better than Bolt or Meet the Robinsons  numbers.  I discussed it as the film played out in theaters, and the common factors I saw popping up in the various comments sections was 'fear of occult elements', 'my kids didn't want to see it' and 'my kids didn't like it'.  Yes, some people did openly complained that the movie was 'too much about race' or 'too black', so I only wonder how much racism played a part.  Fair or not, Mulan was not sold/perceived as an Asian myth.  I have to wonder if Disney would even try to make Aladdin in today's cultural climate. The Princess and the Frog was certainly not about race or even all-that much about class, but the pundits at large didn't let that get in the way of writing countless wrongheaded articles exclaiming, among other things, that Disney magically produced the film to cash in on the election of Barack Obama.   Since animated films take about four years to produce, apparently Disney studios has a time machine in their fabled Disney Vault.

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 AvatarThe 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.

Scott Mendelson