Here’s a longer version of the “Rapunzel” story that ran on the cover of the Los Angeles Times business section today.
After the less-than-fairy-tale results for its most recent animated release, “The Princess and the Frog,” executives at the Burbank studio believe they know why the acclaimed movie came up short at the box office.
Brace yourself: Boys didn’t want to see a movie with “princess” in the title.
This time, Disney is taking measures to ensure that doesn’t happen again. The studio renamed its next animated film from the girl-centric “Rapunzel” to the less gender-specific “Tangled.”
The makeover of “Rapunzel” is more than cosmetic. Disney can ill afford a moniker that alienates half the potential audience, young boys, who are needed to make an expensive family film a success.
“We did not want to be put in a box,” said Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, explaining the reason for the name change. “Some people might assume it’s a fairy tale for girls when it’s not. We make movies to be appreciated and loved by everybody.”
So Disney is taking no chances with “Tangled,” positioned to take advantage of holiday family movie-going when it opens Nov. 24. The studio’s marketing campaign will amp up the role of the dashing Errol Flynn-styled male lead to share the spotlight with the golden-haired namesake of the classic Brothers Grimm story. Hints of swashbuckling action are already being leaked online.
“In our film, the infamous bandit Flynn Rider meets his match in the girl with the 70 feet of magical golden hair,” wrote the film’s producer, Roy Conli, on Disney Animation’s Facebook page. “We’re having a lot of fun pairing Flynn, who’s seen it all, with Rapunzel, who’s been locked away in a tower for 18 years.”
Flynn Rider, of course, is nowhere to be found in the original “Rapunzel” story.
In the Grimm tale, a prince riding through a forest is enticed by Rapunzel’s sweet singing and climbs up the tower where the imprisoned girl is reachable only by her golden tresses. The prince is hardly the boastful swordsman type, let alone a charming rogue. And in Disney’s latest version, the demure princess is transformed into a feisty teen.
Disney hopes the introduction of the slightly bad-boy character will help it tap the broadest possible audience for “Tangled,” emulating the success of its corporate sibling, Pixar. Pixar’s movies have been huge hits because they appeal to girls, boys and adults. Its most recent release, “Up,” grossed more than $700 million worldwide.
“The Princess and the Frog” generated considerably less — $222 million in global ticket sales to date.
“Based upon the response from fans and critics, we believe it would have been higher if it wasn’t prejudged by its title,” Catmull said.
In rethinking “Rapunzel,” Disney tested a number of titles, finally settling on “Tangled” because people responded to meanings beyond the obvious hair reference: a twisted version of the familiar story and the tangled relationship between the two lead characters.
However, some in the Disney animation community think the name change is misguided.
Floyd Norman, a retired Disney and Pixar animator, lampooned the new name with a cartoon on his blog that depicts Rapunzel in her tower brandishing a machine gun and declaring “Rapunzel Salvation: This Is Not a Princess Movie.”
“The idea of changing the title of a classic like ‘Rapunzel’ to ‘Tangled’ is beyond stupid,” said Norman, who worked on films including “Mulan” and “Monsters, Inc.”
“I’m still hoping that Disney will eventually regain their sanity and return the title of their movie to what it should be. I’m convinced they’ll gain nothing from this except the public seeing Disney as desperately trying to find an audience.”
Rapunzel isn’t the only Disney princess to have a boy problem.
Concluding it had too many animated girl flicks in its lineup, Disney has shelved its long-gestating project “The Snow Queen,” based on the Hans Christian Andersen story. “Snow Queen” would have marked the company’s fourth animated film with a female protagonist, following “The Princess and the Frog,” “Tangled” and Pixar’s forthcoming “The Bear and the Bow,” directed by Pixar’s first female director, Brenda Chapman, and starring Reese Witherspoon.
Since the release of its first movie, “Toy Story,” in 1995, Pixar has uniformly featured male leads in its films, including Buzz and Woody; Mr. Incredible, the middle-aged superhero in “The Incredibles“; and Lightning McQueen, the stock-car star of “Cars.”
But princesses have played an integral role in Disney’s animation division since the 1937 debut of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” all the way to last year’s “Princess and the Frog.” Princesses and other female protagonists helped lead the 1980s and ’90s revival of the animation unit with “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Mulan.” The difference between those releases and “Princess and the Frog” is that those earlier films weren’t marketed as princess movies.
The female characters emerged as a brand only in 1999, when Disney Consumer Products lumped nine of the favorite Disney princesses together to sell toys, clothing and other merchandise. That licensing business accounted for $3.7 billion in retail sales last year. Even though “Princess and the Frog” was a box-office disappointment, dolls depicting Disney’s first African American princess flew off shelves last holiday season.
Over the last decade, “Rapunzel” has had a tortured history. The movie was conceived as a straightforward retelling of the German fairy tale about a girl who, at the age of 12, is locked away in a tower in the woods by an enchantress.
Initially, veteran Disney animator Glen Keane, who had worked on “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid,” was developing “Rapunzel” in the hand-drawn tradition. Then in 2003 Disney retooled the movie creatively and technically in response to the popularity of such computer-animated tales as “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo.” Redubbed “Rapunzel Unbraided,” the new version attempted to echo the snarky tone of DreamWorks Animation Studios’ blockbuster “Shrek.”
Two years after Disney’s 2006 acquisition of Pixar, Keane relinquished his director role, citing health issues, and was replaced by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, who were asked to give the film a fresh take.
Disney Princesses didn’t always suffer from lack of sex appeal.
Mary Costa, the actress who voiced Princess Aurora in the 1959 Disney film “Sleeping Beauty,” said the animated classic continues to attract male admirers. Indeed, she recently received a letter from a 22-year-old who wrote he has loved the film since he was a young boy.
“These young men are not the least bit embarrassed about liking ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and consider themselves young princes,” Costa said.
But times, and tastes, have changed. Costa said “Alice in Wonderland” director Tim Burton is considering a live-action retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” — as told through the eyes of the self-proclaimed mistress of evil, Maleficent, although the appeal of the classic animated film has endured for a half-century.
“The thing is that every time it comes out, it gets more popular,” Costa said.
– Dawn C. Chmielewski and Claudia Eller
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