Walt Disney and seven good reasons not to abandon fairy tale movies. Walt’s Academy Award for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” established Disney as the genre’s leader. (Photo: Walt Disney Productions/RKO Radio Pictures)
By William Wiggins
The next time the suits at Disney’s Burbank studio lot feel some shaking, it may not be from an earthquake. Rather, it could be the company’s founder and the man who put feature animation on the map, Walt Disney, rolling over in his grave. Were he around today, Walt might take exception with one of the latest moves by the would-be moguls running the empire that bears his name.
In November, the L.A. Times reported that executives at Disney Animation said the studio’s latest release, “Tangled,” will be the last animated fairy tale produced for the “foreseeable future.”
The studio has a lengthy history of successful animated storybook movies (many of which are now considered classics), and established much of its formidable animation credibility with the 1937 release of the Oscar-winning hit, “Snow White.”
This weekend, it chalked up another smash with the animated musical “Tangled,” Disney’s take on Rapunzel. Without much promotion, including little in the way of splashy print or TV ads, it turns out that a fairy tale princess gave a young wizard a run for his money.
According to the weekend’s estimated box office returns, Warner Brothers’ “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” may have held on to the No. 1 spot with a $50.3 million take over Thanksgiving weekend, but only by Harry’s fingernails as “Tangled” had no problem braiding up $49.1 million.
This while spending approximately half of what Warner spent on marketing their respective films.
“Tangled,” with Mandy Moore providing the voice of Rapunzel, went on to raise its five-day total to $69 million since opening the day before Thanksgiving, Disney’s second-biggest Thanksgiving debut ever behind “Toy Story 2,” which had a $57.4 million opening in 1999.
Disney head of distribution Chuck Viane told the Los Angeles Times that the studio would have been happy if “Tangled” had matched the $34 million debut of its hit “Enchanted” over Thanksgiving 2007. “Tangled” clearly caught the suits in Burbank off-guard.
But should it have come as such as surprise? With few exceptions (i.e. last year’s “The Princess and the Frog”), Disney’s track record with this type of picture is unparalleled. Ever since Walt stuck to his guns with “Snow White,” firmly convinced that the animated feature was viable in the movie marketplace, Disney has ruled the “magic kingdom” it created. Competitors have been chasing Mickey Mouse’s tail for the past seven decades. Sure, there have been successes from other studios, but none that even come close to the string of hits Disney’s generated.
“Cinderella,” “Fantasia,” the mixed media “Mary Poppins,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid” and “The Lion King” are just a handful of the titles that Disney can point to when it comes to defining why they do it better than anyone else. In recent years, Disney’s only major competition is probably Dreamworks Animation’s popular “Shrek” franchise, which (ironically) is a spoof of … fairy tale movies.
As the LA Times went on to correctly point out, the change in direction could have other ramifications as well, not the least of which is a serious identity crisis. The fairy tale castle is the centerpiece of theme parks around the world, it’s embedded in the company’s logos from stationery to film headers, and fairy tale characters play key roles not only wandering the theme parks greeting guests, but also in terms of merchandise sales and inspiration for Broadway musicals.
In fairness, some of Disney’s recent hits have come as a result of its partnership with Pixar Animation, and have skewed more toward the pop culture side of things, the exception perhaps being the “Toy Story” series and its nostalgia-driven look and story lines.
Meanwhile Pixar, reported the Times, has abandoned its plans for musicals and fairy tales, halting development on “The Snow Queen” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” in favor of other more contemporary product, such as “Cars 2.”
*FYI, Lunch says the reaction to the “Cars 2” trailer at the debut screening of Tangled was tepid at best. What the kids really responded to was the trailer for “Yogi Bear.”
Disney proper, however, seems to think it needs to compete more with the likes of “Iron Man” and “Transformers” to bring in younger viewers. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine and other Disney royalty will now have to share space not only with Buzz Lightyear and Woody, but also Capt. Jack Sparrow and superheroes from the studio’s recent acquisition of Marvel Entertainment.
Competing in the big action franchise arena is somewhat new ground for Disney, but if they can make something of it, more power to ‘em. Still, one would think that if, in this age of mega-franchises, a film such as “Enchanted” can pull in $340 million worldwide, there’s still a place for the animated fairy tale. Why surrender your position in the marketplace, and a profitable marketplace at that, when you don’t have to, especially on the heels of a box-office smash?
Why did the suits feel compelled to say anything?
All kids want to be cool, but deep down girls want to find their Prince Charming and boys want to think they’re that knight to the rescue on a white horse. Walking away from those types of stories seems like walking away from storytelling itself, and could leave Disney vulnerable to another company wise enough to fill that niche.
And when it comes to trends, cutting edge doesn’t always trump old school. Put it this way: I have a 19-year-old niece, Stephanie, a college freshman. She’s fine with Amanda Seyfried, Kristen Stewart and other current box office babes. But have a guess at who’s her all-time favorite movie star and you might be surprised. Amy Adams? Nope, try Audrey Hepburn.
Pixar Studios Chief Ed Catmull told the LA Times he hopes “Tangled” does well and wants the public to like it. Apparently the public does like it, but nonetheless the clock is still tolling midnight for the animated fairy tale at Disney. Upcoming animated films include the re-imagining of Winnie the Pooh and “Joe Jump,” about an outdated video game character left behind by the march of technology … more irony from the Disney suits.
Let’s hope Disney execs are casting the right spell with this new direction. But I have a feeling the success of “Tangled” may come back to haunt them, particularly if the studio’s new slate of offerings (including the sequel to “Tron”) fares the same as the dismal remake of “Race to Witch Mountain.” Those executives may wake up one day and find their rewrite to this chapter of the Disney story has a decidedly “UN-happily ever after” ending.
William Wiggins is a freelance entertainment writer from Los Angeles, who encourages you to see what you think about Disney’s decision. “Tangled” is still playing at Minaret Cinemas in Mammoth Lakes.