Thursday, December 9, 2010

What is the lesson of Tangled's success?

NOTE: after this post, I started a new blog for various Disney-related opinions and articles. Please check out The Disney Revue.

For the last two years, Disney has released new musical animated features based on well-known fairy tales about princesses. Last year's The Princess and the Frog bombed at the box office. This year's Tangled (based on the fairy tale "Rapunzel" is turning out to be a hit. Both films are very much extensions of the company's tradition of such films dating back to their first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. So why did one flop and the other soar?

Unfortunately, the box office isn't a scientific experiment where we can control everything and change only one variable at a time. There were several significant differences between these two films even before the first one flopped, and Disney reacted (some would say over-reacted) to that by making even more changes to Tangled.

So, while both movies are based on famous fairy tales; feature female leads who begin as or become a princess; have show-tune musical numbers; and balance comedy, action, and romance, let's look at the different devils in the details:

PRINCESS AND THE FROG: hand-drawn animation
TANGLED: computer-generated animation

PRINCESS AND THE FROG: title identifies source material/princess factor
TANGLED: title obscures source material/princess factor

PRINCESS AND THE FROG: Marketed as musical
TANGLED: Musical aspect hidden in marketing

PRINCESS AND THE FROG: Female lead featured in commercials
TANGLED: male lead featured in commercials

PRINCESS AND THE FROG: Available only in 2D
TANGLED: Available in both 2D and 3D

PRINCESS AND THE FROG: African American lead
TANGLED: White lead

I hate to even list that last difference between these two movies. I'd hate to think that in this day an age that two movies with so much in common would sink or swim based on the color of the main character's skin. I really don't think that played a big role, but there's enough cynic in me that I had to include that factor in the list.

The animation: The Disney company was built on hand-drawn animation and for decades it was the company's bread-and-butter. Then, in the late 90s and 2000s, those films faltered and flopped just as Pixar and Dreamworks were having success with computer-generated features. Despite the clear fact that the quality of the movies Disney was releasing was greatly diminishing (with the exception of Lilo & Stitch – surprise: also the exception to poor box office returns!), the company leaped to the assumption that they style of animation was to blame. The audience wanted CGI, they decided, and then shut down the hand-drawn animation division. By then, the novelty of CGI movies had worn off, and the movies would actually have to survive on storytelling merits. When Disney’s CGI features still didn’t reach the successes of their rivals, the decided to test the waters of 2D again with Princess & The Frog.

All along I had assumed Disney was being stupid about this hand-drawn vs. CGI debate. That story and heart and artistry were more important than format. But then Princess & The Frog bombed. And then Tangled succeeded. Could they have been at least half-right all along? While a movie having CGI is no-longer a guarantee of success, has hand-drawn animation become a kiss of death? I certainly hope not. And I really hope that’s not the lesson Disney takes from this.

The sting of Princess and the Frog’s failure apparently hurt Disney so badly that even before Tangled was released in theaters, the company announced they wouldn’t be do anymore princess movies, fairy tales, or musicals for the forseeable future and cancelled a couple of projects that were in development. I wonder if Tangled’s success is already making them re-think this move.

Did marketing triumph? Tangled’s previews and commercials are extremely misleading about the tone of the movie. As I’ve said, the musical aspect is completely hidden in the marketing, and the majority of the commercials paint the film as an action movie with a male lead full of snarky humor. Based on the marketing alone, I wouldn’t have even wanted to see this movie, but since I kept hearing it was both completely different and far-more enjoyable than those ads suggested, I bought a ticket anyway. Internet buzz got me in the theater, but did the misleading marketing make the movie a success? Will that be the lesson of Tangled? Give them boys, bangs, and cheap laughs?

The truth is, despite the animation style, the terrible title, and the modern marketing, Tangled is actually a much more traditional Disney princess feature than The Princess and the Frog. Both movies (as has every Disney movie) makes significant deviations from the source material, Tangled is much closer to “Rapunzel” than The Princess & The Frog is to “The Frog Prince.” Tangled sticks to a European setting and some medieval once-upon-a-time while The Princess & The Frog moves the story to Jazz era New Orleans and features characters who are aware of the story the film is based on. Maybe the lesson is really stick to the traditional approach! I kind of doubt it, but it makes as much sense to me as hand-drawn vs. CGI.

We can’t know the real reason why Princess & The Frog flopped and Tangled succeeded. There are just too many variables between the movies themselves, let alone other variables such as different competition from other movies, time of release, state of the economy, and so on.

No doubt Disney will be looking hard for a lesson in all this, though. I wish they wouldn’t. I wish instead they’d just go back to producing the best films they could, whether musical or not, whether girl or boy-oriented, and whether hand-drawn or computer rendered (though my personal preference is for the former, especially with so many other companies doing the latter). Besides, these films are supposed to be timeless masterpieces that should entertain children for decades to come. Sleeping Beauty flopped on its initial release too, but it’s been making money for the company ever since – through re-releases, VHS, DVD, Blue Ray, and endless merchandising. Look to that lesson instead. Shoot for making classics, and stop sweating the opening weekend so much.

But in the meantime, we can speculate. Why do you think Princess & The Frog bombed and Tangled boomed?

NOTE: after this post, I started a new blog for various Disney-related opinions and articles. Please check out The Disney Revue.


  1. This is very interesting. I was completely unaware of the failure of P&tF at the box office because it was such a phenomenal movie with a better plot, better voices, better art, and better music. Thank you for bringing this up, I'm going to think about this for a while.

  2. To me, it all boiled down to character relatability. Frog Princess was about a workaholic over-achiever falling in love with a playboy billionaire Prince. I am neither of those, and I don't know anybody who is like that. In Tangled we had a sheltered girl rebelling against her over-protective parental figure falling in love with an average guy who is full of false bravado that based his lifestyle off of a fantasy character he once read about but has kind of lost sight of his dreams. That pretty much describes EVERYONE I know :)

  3. Very good article. I watched both movies and I liked Tangled much more than P&tF.

    This isn't about 2D vs 3D - because I love both equally - and I certainly don't care about the lead character's nationality either. The music doesn't stand out to me in either movie, and the animation is well-done in both movies. For me, I think the main aspect was the story.

    I really like your point about how Tangled is closer to the original than P&tF is. I like sticking to the traditional approach! I personally love the classic medieval setting, and I think Tangled did a wonderful job of making the characters feel modern (like they could be identified with people we know) and entertaining while existing in an older time period, and keeping to the story.

    Something about P&tF's setting just didn't appeal to me.. Also, something that I always thought was weird about P&tF was that Disney wanted to make a movie about an Afrian American princess.. but then the princess was only a frog for half the movie. Yeah it's still the same person, but it made me feel less attached to her somehow.
    And I thought the art style was kinda trippy and weird (mainly the scenes with the voodoo man).. but I guess I can't complain about that cause Disney's been making trippy dancing elephants and other weird animation sequences since the old days. lol.

  4. It bums me out so much that Princess and the Frog flopped the way it did, because I was rooting so much for a return of hand drawn animation. But when you get down to it, I think that Tangled was more successful than PatF largely because it was a much more endearing movie. PatF didn't capture me: The characters eluded me, the musical numbers fell flat, and the villain was sort of a mess. Aside from the animation (which was gorgeous), I didn't get a Disney vibe from PatF so much as I got an early '90s Disney ripoff vibe from it.

    Tangled, on the other hand, was engaging, entertaining, and lovable. The musical numbers were catchy, the characters made you want to fall in love with them, and the vibe I got from it felt so much like a real "Disney" classic: In terms of longevity, I feel like Rapunzel resonated as a Disney princess much more powerfully than Tiana ever did.

    I wish the lesson taken from this wouldn't be the CGI is superior, but I am almost certain that it will be, despite the fact that (in my opinion) Tangled succeeded primarily BECAUSE it returned to Disney's classical roots in storytelling (whereas PatF certainly departed from it).

  5. Princess and the Frog did not "flop." That is a technical term meaning it lost money, which it did not. It made over $250 million and only cost $105 million. It might not have been as successful as they were hoping, but it did not flop.

  6. Princes and the Frog is actually more successful than Tangled(so far)

    Tangled cost 260 million to make, so far (Dec 26th) it has only made 241 million worldwide at 5 weeks in theaters.

    Princess and the Frog cost 105 million to make
    it made 104 million domestically for a total of 267 million worldwide.

    To me it seems that Tangled is the flop.

  7. i think that the two movies are about the same.
    tangled is funny and loveable, while the princess and the frog was catchy and musical.
    though most say that they didn't like p&tf i think they were just hiding what they really thought of it.
    and the movie wasn't advratised as well as some of disneys other movies in the past.
    tangled on the other hand was adveratised quite well,youtube, computer sites, tv. and there for inproving it's over chances of booming at the box office.
    in my conculsion, i find them both equal movies in terms of Entertainment and enjoyment.

  8. In my house we watch and rewatch movies. Even though my daughter is all about princess movies, she rarely wants to rewatch Princess and the Frog. It is a great movie, but a little on the boring side. It is just not compelling enough. You know what it needed? A good funny side kick. Tangled had lots of funny moments that my kids want to keep seeing and saying!