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The End of Fairy-Tale Princesses?

03/17/2010 Comments (4)

Yesterday I wrote about the possible effects of the box-office success of Alice in Wonderland on fairy-tale revisionism in family films to come. The flip side is the box-office disappointment of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, which hit DVD shelves yesterday.

It looks like concern over The Princess and the Frog‘s poor performance is translating into branding concerns for upcoming animated fairy tales, including the Disney project formerly known as Rapunzel, and possibly Pixar’s The Bear and the Bow.

I found The Princess and the Frog to be an engaging blend of classic Disney themes and contemporary sensibilities, despite scary, morally mixed voodoo imagery too intense for younger kids. It didn’t click with audiences, though … and there’s some feeling that the title may have been part of the problem.

With its classic fairy-tale cadences and Disney princess branding, “The Princess and the Frog” may have lacked the unisex (i.e., non-girly) appeal that seems to be a key factor for successful family entertainment today, from every Pixar film to date to the Harry Potter phenomenon. (Even J. K. Rowling’s sex was downplayed behind authorial initials.)

Consider: One of the few successful cartoons in recent years with a female protagonist had the extremely boy-friendly title Monsters vs. Aliens, as well as a virtually all-male supporting cast (and a trailer that emphasized rude humor). A few films have bucked the trend, notably the ambiguously named Coraline and Burton’s Alice, both of which benefited from dark, Gothic sensibilities and 3D punch (as well as Alice‘s use of live actors including Johnny Depp).

In a word, princess branding may move product at the Disney Store, but it may no longer be a viable niche on the big screen.

Apparently taking the lesson to heart, Disney recently cast a nervous eye at its Rapunzel feature in development—and has retitled it Tangled, a title with all the fractured fairy-tale cred of Enchanted and its ilk.

That’s not all. Many sources are reporting that Pixar’s The Bear and the Bow—billed as Pixar’s first fairy-tale and first film with a girl protagonist—may be re-branded Brave, a one-word, monosyllabic concept title much like Up or Cars (compare also the polysyllabic Ratatouille and the eponymous WALL-E).

Even though “The Bear and the Bow” makes no mention of princesses, perhaps the traditional rhythms of the title (compare to “The Bear and the Wolf” or “The Princess and the Pea”—or the frog!) may be thought passé.

This last change, if it takes, seems to me a bit melancholy. “The Bear and the Bow” is a lovely, evocative title; “Brave” isn’t bad, but are all Pixar titles going to sound the same now? What seemed, well, bravely unconventional with Up seems less so with Brave, and could quickly become dull. (Not to mention the difficulty of targeting these short, generic titles with search engines…)

What happens, too, when the issue percolates past branding issues to story development? I’m no fan of the Disney princess phenomenon, but on the other hand I don’t want girl protagonists to become even rarer. Or all fairy tales to be more determinedly non-traditional and fractured than they are now.

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About SDG

Steven D. Greydanus
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Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is film critic for the National Catholic Register, creator of Decent Films, and a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark. With David DiCerto, he co-hosts the Gabriel Award–winning cable TV show “Reel Faith” for New Evangelization Television. Steven has degrees in media arts and religious studies, and has contributed several entries to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, including “The Church and Film” and a number of filmmaker biographies. He has also written about film for the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy. He has a BFA in Media Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York, and an MA in Religious Studies from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, PA. Steven and his wife Suzanne have seven children.