MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

From Rapunzel to Tangled? Disney’s Dicey Decision

Hot on the heels of Kathryn Bigelow‘s historic moment as the first female to win a Best Director Oscar for making a decidedly “guy” film comes word via the LA Times from Disney that they’ve changed the title of their upcoming animated adaptation of Rapunzel to Tangled. Apparently someone at the Mouse House did a little research into why The Princess and the Frog disappointed with box office returns (if $222 million globally can truly be said to be disappointing) and determined that boys don’t want to see films about princesses. Because girls are yucky, ewwww.

I can think of any number of reasons The Princess and the Frog didn’t perform spectacularly, starting with a story that just wasn’t intriguing. Disney historically has certainly made a lot of bucks at the box office and with the all-important merchandise they push relentlessly to our daughters off their “Princesses” franchise. Ariel, Belle, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White and now, Tiana; just this morning I got an email about “Princess Tiana” being officially added to the “Court of Disney Princesses.” Oh yes, Disney has done very well selling our daughters on their particularly pink and shiny version of “happily ever after.” Now, suddenly, girlie movies don’t sell?

So here we have Rapunzel — excuse me, Tangled —  in which the heroine has an abundance — what, 70 feet? — of long blond hair. A heroine imprisoned by both a tower and her long tresses (Do you know how heavy that much hair would really be? The posture problems it would cause? Seriously.) And now Disney is going to macho up the film by both changing the title to Tangled and adding a rakish male character, Flynn Rider, in place of the largely inconsequential prince from the Grimm Brothers’ tale. All because boys don’t like princesses and other such girlie things, and Disney wants to add some action and adventure to bulk up their fairy tale and get boy butts in seats. But is Disney’s analysis of the need to make the film clearly aim at both boys and girls on target? Let’s look at the numbers.

Since 1989 (I chose that year because that was the year The Little Mermaid, Disney’s first film in its newer set of “princess” films came out), there have been ten Disney animated films clearly aimed at hitting that boy-girl demographic sweet spot that have outperformed The Princess and the Frog:

Aladdin (1992) – $217.4 million domestic, $286.7 million foreign
The Lion King (1994) – $328.5 million domestic, $455.3 million foreign
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) – $100.1 million domestic, $225.2 million foreign

Hercules (1998) – $99.1 million domestic, $153.6 million foreign

Tarzan (1999) – $171 million, $277.1 million foreign
Dinosaur (2000) – $137 million domestic, $212 million foreign
Brother Bear (2003) – $85.2 million domestic, $165 million foreign

Chicken Little (2005) – $135.4 million domestic, $179 million foreign
Bolt (2008) – $114 million domestic, $194.2 million foreign

A Christmas Carol (2009)  – $137.8 million domestic, $185.7 million foreign

You should note, by the bye, that the domestic numbers for Hunchback, Hercules, and Brother Bear are all lower than those for The Princess and the Frog, in spite of crossing that boy-girl demographic line. Now during that same time period, Disney made five films aimed pretty squarely at the girlie market:

The Little Mermaid – $111.5 million domestic, $99.8 million foreign
Beauty and the Beast (1991) – $145.9 million domestic, $171.3 million foreign
Pocahontas (1995) – $141.6 million domestic, $204.5 million foreign

Mulan (1998) – $120.6 million domestic, $183.7 million foreign
Lilo and Stitch ( 2002) – $145 million domestic, $127.3 million foreign

The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, Mulan and Lilo and Stitch all had female lead characters. With the exception of The Little Mermaid, which made less, they outperformed The Princess and the Frog somewhat, but certainly not hugely. So here sits The Princess and the Frog, with its $103.8 million domestic, $118.7 million foreign, and those numbers are being used to justify by Disney the urgent need to change the title of Rapunzel to Tangled and beef up the storyline to make it more appealing to boys. Where are the historic numbers that justify that need? If you look at the boy-girl top performing films on that list, you know what’s more striking than them having male leads (and I’m counting the animal films as having male leads, because they were all male characters)? They mostly had good stories.

Aladdin was the first huge writing hit powerhouse duo Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, who would go onto pen Shrek and the Pirates of the Caribbean films, were involved with. What made Aladdin a great, appealing film was its storyline and its songs. Tarzan and The Lion King? Also great storytelling and memorable music, songs that are still in my head all these years after seeing them the first time. Hercules was a clever take on a old tale, it had James Woods as a hilarious Hades, and it put the “glad” in gladiator.

These films all managed to be engaging and entertaining in spite of having to stick structurally to the storytelling rules laid out by the “Disney Bible.” Back in the day, Elliot and Rossio wrote extensively on their screenwriting site, Wordplay (an excellent resource for those aspiring to be screenwriters and those just interested in an insider take on the art, craft and business of screenwriting) about having to follow Disney’s structure in writing Aladdin, and the challenges of honing song lyrics to both flow rhythmically and suit the story — fascinating stuff.  All of those films, except for The Lion King, by the way, also featured strong female characters.

The problem here isn’t girls versus boys. The problem is that Disney, for whatever reason, just has never been able to match the brilliance (or box office returns) of Pixar. From Toy Story to Up, Pixar has simply been more engaging, more challenging, more creative with their stories than Disney. Sorry, Disney, but that’s the truth.

I don’t think the problem with The Princess and the Frog was the word “princess” or the color of the princess’s skin. In fact, I don’t think the numbers show it had a box office problem at all.  I think it just was not perceived as the “must-see” kids’ film in a year when there were so many other engaging and more original ideas being aimed at that market.

The kid flicks my own kids cared most about seeing in the theater this year were Up (with its massive $293 million domestic, $430 million box office that nobody could have foreseen), CoralineCloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. They saw G-Force on DVD and loved it. They had zero interest — and I offered to take them more than once — in seeing The Princess and the Frog. In the words of my eight-year-old daughter, who is the prime demographic for that film, “It looks boring.”

Indeed. Maybe someone at the Mouse House needs to stop greenlighting boring stories and mucking about with classic fairy tales to make them more “boy-friendly” and get some creativity flowing around there again. Disney needs to stop worrying about trying to beat Pixar, and just make good, interesting movies again.

– by Kim Voynar

March 15, 2010

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2 Responses to “From Rapunzel to Tangled? Disney’s Dicey Decision”

  1. Aly says:

    Someone should email this to disney. Very Good Points made here. I got upset when they decided to boy friendify rapanzel

  2. electroglodyte says:

    I think the issue goes beyond a straight gender divide. “Rapunzel” is not the most exciting title out there, connoting a straight adaptation of a fairy tale. With the competition that’s out there in the animated feature market (as was pointed out here towards the end of the article), Disney has chosen to emphasize the comedy angle of their approach.

    As Kim pointed out, her kids simply had no interest in something that had a title that conveyed “traditional fairy-tale”, even if it did have some semblance of a “twist” in the title.

    I haven’t seen Tangled yet, but the trailers do convey a feel of free-wheeling comedy, not a million miles from, say, Shrek, Chance of Meatballs and some Pixar movies. And a small bit of market research around my own family indicates that the title “Tangled” makes us all more likely to see it than if it were called “Rapunzel”.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon