Last December, we pointed out that on the announcement of the 2010 slate from Walt Disney Pictures, the upcoming animated feature Rapunzel was listed as a “working title.” This squared with a couple of comments I had seen on animation-related blogs; most noticeably, the comments section of the Animation Guild’s blog featured speculation that the new film would have a name change before release. I was never able to firm up any of these rumors – after all, who would change the name of such a prominent film right before it was to hit theaters?
Well, apparently Disney would. The Stitch Kingdom news site pointed out today that Disney had secured a number of different domain names relating to two specific titles: The Thief and the Tower and The Hidden Tower. These names have popped up before; an anonymous comment on the Animation Guild blog from early in January said that they hoped the new title would be “nothing dumb like The Thief and the Tower.” The Hidden Tower was also mentioned in a recent thread.
The reason for this abrupt name change on a film that’s been in development for a decade comes, as most terrible ideas do, straight from marketing. The Princess and the Frog, while successful, did not turn out to be a mega-hit as Disney had hoped. All of a sudden Disney execs seem to be in a panic, and are blaming Frog‘s under-performance on its “princess” aspects.
This is both hilarious and tragic. Those who have seen The Princess and the Frog will know that it’s far from a traditional “princess” tale. In fact, much of the film’s storyline is a direct slam on the creepy princessploitation mythos Disney marketing has been pushing on young girls for a few years now; after all, the character made to look the most ridiculous throughout the whole picture is the one who most longs to become a princess. One doubts the film’s heroine would ever be caught dead in the Bibbiti Bobbiti Boutique, which makes it all the more ironic that Disney tried to market the film that way.
Marketing which, of course, failed… which means blame the movie, right?
What a lot of people seem to not understand is that Princess and the Frog‘s problems had little to do with the film itself and a lot to do with the product that preceded it. Disney, in their attempts to wrench as much money as possible from young girls and their parents, infantilized their animated classics to an obscene degree and created the view in the public’s eyes that Disney films – and fairy tales in particular – are just for little kids. They’re doing the same thing to parks these days – you can see it in almost every ad. Princess and the Frog might have had some story issues, but the fact that it was a fairy tale wasn’t one of them. Princess and the Frog didn’t bring itself down, this did. Now Disney is tasked with reversing a decade of marketing and trying to convince people that, wait, maybe these films aren’t just fodder for babysitting your toddlers, and that maybe there is a difference between classic Disney features and Cinderella III.
It’ll be hard, and it will probably take a few solid films to turn around public expectations. I’m not sure Winnie-the-Pooh is the way to go about that, but what do I know?
The point is, it looks like the clever folks in the executive suite are, instead of acknowledging the real problems, going to make a purely cosmetic change that will not address underlying issues but instead merely confuse the target audience. Rapunzel is one of the best known fairy tales of all time – do you actually think that The Thief and the Tower is going to send people running for the cineplex? I guess UP was such a hit because people just love that direction. Think how much money it would have made if they’d called it Old Guy and the Flying House? Box office gold!!
All you have to do is read the (admittedly anonymous) comments on the TAG blog to get a hint at the toxic atmosphere that still pervades Disney’s feature animation department. Sure, there will always be cranks and naysayers, and most of those people commenting probably don’t work at Disney anyway, but these are stories that get told time and time again and it makes one wonder if any meaningful changes have actually been made since the Pixar merger. I think that obviously things are better, but there’s a long way to go. If an idea as stupefying as this name change can get any traction at all, it just goes to show that we’ve got a long hard road ahead.
For what it’s worth, I’ll also point out the hilarity of Disney’s animation marketing department fleeing in panic from anything princess-related (awful rumors on the TAG blog suggest that The Snow Queen is now shelved), thinking that well is now dry, while the parks division in Florida has broken ground on a very expensive expansion that is 100% princess. Left hand, meet right hand.