Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Winter of Disney Studio's Discontent

I'm sure it looked good on the calendar: three sure-fire hits for the holiday movie season.  First, a 3-D animated Christmas film from award-winning director Robert Zemeckis, using the same motion capture technology that Zemeckis used to create "The Polar Express."  Instead of Tom Hanks performing multiple roles, it would now be Jim Carrey performing in "Disney's A Christmas Carol."  Next, a broad family comedy reuniting the director of the surprise blockbuster "Wild Hogs" with star John Travolta and adding Robin Williams for "Old Dogs."  Last, a triumphant and long-anticipated return to hand-drawn animation and classic fairytales, "The Princess and the Frog."  Now on the cusp of the new year, Disney instead has two disappointments and an outright bomb.  What happened?

"Disney's A Christmas Carol" -- First of all, I hate this title.  This will be addressed in a future post, but to me it's a branding shortcut that insults the audience.  When the film debuted to a less than stellar $30 million, some blamed the release date (first week of November) as being to early for a Christmas film.  But other Christmas-themed films have successfully debuted in that same time frame.  "Carol" showed some staying power and has grossed a respectable $135 million, but that's still less than "The Polar Express" made five years ago.  And for all the talk of dead-eye syndrome and the uncanny valley, "The Polar Express" is an original and charming story.  "A Christmas Carol" is, well, a tale as old as time.  Zemeckis keeps getting better at the motion capture animation and he makes excellent use of the 3-D environments, but his film lacks warmth and wit and charm.  It's simply a very competently told version of the story.  Without the 3-D gimmick there's not much of anything unique to recommend it.

"Old Dogs" -- I don't have much to say about this.  I have not seen the movie, but from the early trailers onward this looked like a lazy, tired, formulaic comedy that aimed squarely for mainstream audiences and apparently mainstream audiences completely saw through it.  The marketing conveyed nothing but uninspired gags, the movie title and poster were confusing (is this a "Beethoven" type of comedy about dogs?) and it's been over a decade since Robin Williams toplined a successful movie.  What were they thinking?  The movie has grossed about $46 million since it's debut a month ago and its box office run is essentially over.  A total dud.

"The Princess and the Frog" -- There was so much hope and promise bound up in this film, it may have been impossible for it to fully deliver.  But, realistic or not, this was supposed to be the beginning of the next golden age, the return of the great fairytale musicals of Disney's past such as "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast," and the coronation of John Lasseter as savior of Disney animation.  Personally, I think they nailed it.  I loved it.  The animation is truly beautiful, the songs are charming, the vocal performances are perfect.  Most critics seem to agree.  Richard Corliss at Time called it the movie of the year (that may be a bit much, but okay).  But you know what?  Audiences aren't really buying it.  It's grossed $70 million to date, and it looks on track to finish in the range of Disney's other recent middling animation successes such as "Bolt" or "Chicken Little."  To be an unqualified success, this needed to be a Pixar-sized hit.

I don't know why the audience isn't showing up, but I have a kernel of a theory.  The uniqueness of the film is that it is Disney's first modern fairytale.  It is not set in a storybook world, it's set in 1920s New Orleans.  The net effect is that the film really plays like a richly layered valentine to the Big Easy.  The attention to detail is truly remarkable.  As a native son of the Bayou State I loved it, but I wonder if it also limits the broad appeal of the film.  In the upcoming weeks we'll learn if word-of-mouth will sustain the film to higher grosses, but right now the "Alvin and the Chipmunks" sequel has a clear a strangle hold on the family market.  The redeeming hope for "Princess and the Frog" is that it will prove itself on the consumer products side by reinvigorating the Disney Princess brand.  This would follow the pattern of "Cars," which continues to be a merchandise juggernaut after what was considered to be a disappointing box office run in 2006 (and it grossed over $460 million worldwide!).

What does this mean for the future?  Three thoughts: 1) Iger's decision to dismiss former studio chief Dick Cook continues to look justifiable.  2) John Lasseter has yet to produce a big hit outside of Pixar.  There's no question that "Princess and the Frog" is a high-quality product, but  Lasseter is supposed to re-build Walt Disney Animation Studios into a powerhouse on par with Pixar.  Lasseter's success with Pixar has given him broad influence not only over animation but also into merchandising and the theme parks.  If Disney animation continues to struggle, will his influence and reputation diminish?  3) Disney has signed high-profile deals with Zemeckis (through his ImageMovers production company) and with Steven Spielberg (though DreamWorks Pictures) to help fill their pipeline of filmed content.  The first product of those deals was a disappointment.  Will Disney come to regret these deals?  With product from Zemeckis, DreamWorks, Pixar, and soon Marvel, in addition to Disney live-action and Disney animation, will new studio boss Rich Ross have trouble positioning all of these productions successfully?  This calls to mind the problems Disney had with Walden Media regarding the Narnia franchise.  2010 will be an interesting transition for Walt Disney Studios as they release another ambitious and unproven slate of films.

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