ONCE upon a time, there was a studio in Burbank, California, that spun classic fairytales into silver-screen gold.
But now the curtain is falling on “princess movies”, which have been a part of Disney Animation’s heritage since the 1937 debut of its first feature film, Snow White.
The studio’s latest release, Tangled, a contemporary retelling of the Rapunzel story that is due for a South African release on Friday, will be the last fairytale produced by Disney’s animation group for the foreseeable future.
“Films and genres do run a course,” said Pixar Animation Studios chief Ed Catmull who, along with director John Lasseter, oversees Disney Animation.
“They may come back later because someone has a fresh take on them… but we don’t have any other musicals or fairytales lined up.”
Indeed, Catmull and Lasseter killed two other fairytale movies that had been in development, The Snow Queen and Jack and the Beanstalk.
To appreciate what a sea change this is for the company, consider that a fairytale castle is a landmark at Disney theme parks around the world and is embedded in the Walt Disney Pictures logo. Fairytale characters from Disney’s movies populate the parks, drive sales of merchandise and serve as the inspiration for Broadway musicals.
Alas, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Jasmine and the other Disney royals were all born in the 20th century.
Now, different kinds of Disney characters are elbowing their way into the megaplexes and toy aisles, including Pixar’s Toy Story buddies Buzz Lightyear and Woody, Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean and a platoon of superheroes from the recent acquisition of Marvel Entertainment.
Over the decades, Disney has benefited from the ticket sales and licensing revenue generated by such princess-driven properties as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. The studio’s most recent offering, however, was a clear disappointment.
Although critically acclaimed, last year’s The Princess and the Frog was the most poorly performing of Disney’s recent fairytales.
In the age of mega-franchises when movies need to appeal to a broad audience to justify a sizable investment, Disney discovered too late that The Princess and the Frog appealed to too narrow an audience: little girls. This prompted the studio to change the name of its Rapunzel movie to the gender-neutral Tangled and shift the lens of its marketing to the film’s swashbuckling male co-star, Flynn Rider.
Disney hopes Tangled will draw boys, teenagers and adults to the cinema, succeeding where its frog-prince saga failed.
But it is taking no such chances in the future. Its current animation roster includes Winnie the Pooh, a return to the Hundred Acre Wood, and Reboot Ralph – itself a restart of an older project titled Joe Jump; about an outdated video game character that has been left behind by the march of technology.
Catmull said he and Lasseter have been encouraging filmmakers to break with safe and predictable formulas and push creative boundaries.
“If you say to somebody, ‘You should be doing fairytales,’ it’s like saying, ‘Don’t be risky,’” Catmull said. “We are saying, ‘Tell us what’s driving you’.”
So why has the clock struck midnight for Disney’s fairytales?
Among girls, princesses and the romanticised ideal they represent – revolving around finding the man of your dreams – have a limited shelf life.
With the advent of “tween” TV, the tiara-wearing ideal of femininity has been supplanted by new adolescent role models such as the Disney Channel’s Selena Gomez and Nickelodeon’s Miranda Cosgrove.
“By the time they are five or six, they’re not interested in being princesses,” said Dafna Lemish, chairwoman of the radio and TV department at Southern Illinois University and an expert in the role of media in children’s lives.
“They are interested in being hot, in being cool. Clearly, they see this is what society values.”
MGA Entertainment, the maker of Bratz dolls, knocked the toy industry’s blonde bombshell off her stilettos by recognising how little girls’ interests have morphed.
“You’ve got to go with the times,” MGA Chief Executive Isaac Larian said. “You can’t keep selling what the mothers and the fathers played with before. You’ve got to see life through their lens.”
Other filmmakers have been grappling with this evolving sensibility.
Bonnie Arnold, an animation veteran who most recently produced DreamWorks Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon, said animated films must vie with effects-laden action films that a generation ago might have been considered more mature fare.
“You see schoolkids standing in line to see Iron Man or Transformers,” Arnold said. “That is who we are all competing with.”
In an effort to give the Rapunzel story a more contemporary feel, Catmull and Lasseter pushed the reset button in 2008 and brought in a new directing duo who had both worked on Disney’s animated movie, Bolt.
The Rapunzel film underwent a “total restart”, Catmull said: All the prior work was scrapped and the movie was reconceived as a musical with five songs by Disney’s veteran, multiple-Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken.
The only surviving elements, Catmull said, were “the hair, the tower and Rapunzel”.
Directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard blended the hallmarks of the classic Disney tale – including sweeping musical numbers and a happily-ever-after ending – with fast-paced action and witty banter associated with more modern animated films.
“If we were told we would one day grow up and direct the 50th animated feature from Disney, it would blow our minds. It’s such a great honour,” Greno said.
“At the same time, it comes with some challenges. We love classic Disney, but we wanted to invent fresh, new and exciting ideas.”
For example, instead of the requisite prince, the directors designed the romantic male lead as a wise-cracking thief who mixes it up with bandits and beer-swilling thugs. The villain, Mother Gothel, isn’t the enchantress of the Grimm tale. She is an incarnation of Mommie Dearest.
In one of the film’s musical numbers, Mother Knows Best, Mother Gothel tells Rapunzel she’s “getting kind of chubby” – a line lifted directly from a real-life mother-daughter exchange recounted during a story brainstorming session.
Disney instructed Menken to depart from the Broadway musical-type scoring he made famous in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
So the composer borrowed from leaner singer-songwriters of the late 1960s, including Joni Mitchell.
Estimates are that Tangled cost more than $260 million to produce, including six years of development costs. - LA Times