Monday, January 11, 2010

The Problem with Princesses

This past weekend, Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" collected $4.6 million at the box office, raising its total to $92.5 million.  As I previously mentioned, the movie is limping its way to the symbolic $100 million mark and is clearly not the hit Disney wanted it to be.  And yet, the movie received generally good or great reviews across the board and, in my opinion, easily earns its place alongside the traditional Disney animated classics.

So what happened?  Maybe the film simply couldn't compete with the pre-established appeal of "Alvin and The Chipmunks: The Squeakuel."  Maybe Disney splintered its own holiday audience by releasing both this film and "Disney's A Christmas Carol."  Maybe the film was too steeped in its Louisiana setting to appeal to a broader audience.  All of these possibilities have some plausibility to them.  But then I stumbled across a theory that suggested the problem may come down to just one word:  Princess.

"Brands are for cattle."  This quote was famously attributed to the late Roy E. Disney during the height of the "SaveDisney" movment that lead to the removal of Michael Eisner as CEO of the company.  It reflected Roy's conviction that the Walt Disney Company had shifted its focus from creating high-quality family entertainment to simply trying to push the Disney brand name in order to sell more product.  If you focus on quality and creativity first, he argued, financial success will follow.  He specifically criticized the Disney Princess franchise for essentially forcing all of Disney's classic heroines into a big pink sorority.

Once upon a time, Cinderella and Snow White and Sleeping Beauty weren't part of a calculated princess franchise.  They were each a part of their own unique story and film that appealed to everyone of all ages and were each a part of the great Disney family.  But in 2000, somebody got a great idea.  As stated in the company's own words, the consumer products division "brought all of Disney's beloved heroines -- Ariel, Belle, Cinderella, Jasmine, Mulan, Pocahontas, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White -- together in a comprehensive collection of fantasy-based girls' entertainment and products called the Disney Princess brand."  (Did you notice that you don't even have to be a princess to be a Disney Princess?  Just ask Mulan and Pocahontas!) 

Hitting the Target.  On the surface, it's hard to argue with the result:  $4 billion in global sales.  But is there a long term cost to this success?  Because of the aggressive and successful marketing of the Disney Princess brand, these characters -- and the movies they starred in -- are now exclusively seen as the domain of little girls under the age of about 10.  But the movies themselves are so iconic to the traditional image of Disney that now even the Disney brand is often associated with little girls, leading to Disney's perceived boy problem.  "Aladdin" was a blockbuster hit that appealed to boys and girls of all ages and to adults and parents too.  Now, it's primarily marketed as the movie with Jasmine and the magic carpet ride.

Stuck in the Swamp.  "The Princess and the Frog" is the first movie conceived from the beginning as an extension of the Disney Princess brand.  They were so aware of it's potential in this regard that they made sure to put it right in the title (the fairytale is traditionally called "The Frog Prince," after all).  This may have been the fatal flaw.  What little boy wants to go see a princess movie?  What teenager wants to?  When you only sell a princess movie, you will only get a princess audience.  This may be the best explanation for the dissappointing box office numbers.  In the short term, this calculation may pay off.  Toys and other merchandise related to the movie may sell quite well, more than justifying the cost of the movie.  But what about the long term value of "The Princess and the Frog"?  Will it endure to become a genuine Disney classic, and not simply another princess product?  Disney is at its best when it provides quality entertainment for the whole family, not aimed carefully at micro-targeted demographics.  "The Princess and the Frog" certainly qualifies, even if the suits in merchandising and marketing didn't realize it.


  1. Hm. If you're right, what does it do to your thesis that the movie handily *trashes* the whole "princess" concept? The entire point of the movie seems to be to undermine the princess mentality in girls.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I think there is a difference between the storytellers and the marketers. Yes, the actual story does kind of subvert the traditional "princess mentality." Tiana isn't even a princess, and as a character she's more in the mold of Belle.

    We just got a "PatF" storybook for our girls, and they actually stamped a "Disney Princess" logo (like the one above) over the title. It's like the story can't exist apart from the franchise. And I will discuss this in a future blog, but now they're over-reacting the other direction by trying to find a new title for the upcoming "Rapunzel" without actually using the word "Rapunzel." The current working title is "Tangled." What does that even mean? Ugh.

  4. Actually, Pocahontas IS a princess.