Kathryn Bigelow may have won the Oscar for Best Director on Sunday, but Hollywood's aversion to the feminine is still alive and kicking. The latest evidence comes in the form of the upcoming animated Disney project, formerly known as "Rapunzel" or "Rapunzel Unbraided." A few weeks ago, it was announced that the film would be retitled "Tangled." While there were murmurs of discontent in the animation community, things really heated up today when it was revealed in the LA Times that the generic new title and the addition of a prominent male lead were designed to attract a male audience.
By themselves these changes don't concern me too much, but the stated reasoning behind them is troubling. Disney is openly blaming the lukewarm performance of "The Princess and the Frog" on the unwillingness of the young male audiencs to see something with the word "Princess" in the title, and has declared that anything overtly girly is now verboten in the Mouse House. Disney is also shelving their long-percolating "Snow Queen" animated project, apparently for having too many female leads. This is a real loss, as the Hans Christian Anderson story featured a very strong young heroine who was not a princess, the sort of lead character that we could really use more of.
The prevailing wisdom in Hollywood today is that boys won't watch films about girls. However girls have no problem watching films about boys, so the best way to broaden a film's appeal is to minimize the use of female leads. This is absurd of course. Disney's legacy of animated films was built on the "princess movies," both the golden age fairy-tale icons and the modern heroines that headlined the Renaissance films of the late 80s and early 90s. These films were not designed to appeal only to women and girls, and they certainly were not watched by female audiences alone. Generations of red-blooded menfolk had their first crushes on Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Ariel, or Princess Jasmine.
And yet somewhere along the line, the Disney princess became unacceptably girly. I think it probably came around the time that the Princess merchandise line went into full swing, and every little girl of a certain age started collecting Disney-branded outfits and plastic tchotchkes. Or maybe it was when female leads started disappearing from mainstream films and Hollywood became more and more obsessed with chasing the young male demographic. Or maybe it was when the majority of animated films started patterning themselves after "Shrek." After so many years of wisecracking CGI characters voiced by braying comedians, it's no wonder that earnestness of "The Princess and the Frog" seemed alien to some viewers.
All this has led to Hollywood devaluing and underestimating female audiences - which it does at its own peril. The massive box office receipts for the "Twilight" movies and "The Blind Side" are proof of that female audiences can generate hits whether or not the male demographic shows up. And I don't believe the lack of male interest is what caused "The Princess and the Frog" to underperform, not when the opening weekend numbers for "New Moon" nearly gave the "Dark Knight" fanboys a heart attack a few weeks earlier. While I enjoyed "Princess," I don't think it was marketed correctly and I don't think it was made for a 2009 audience. Blaming the "Princess" title is just the executives taking the easy way out.
What really worries me is that Disney animation has fallen into this trap before. The animation Renaissance of the '90s came to a bitter end when they tried making action films to appeal to the summer blockbuster crowd and churned out a string of bombs including "Dinosaur," "Atlantis," and the notorious "Treasure Planet." The further away they got from their traditional family-friendly, female-friendly roots, the worse their films did. By now I hope the message has gotten through - teenage boys just don't want to watch Disney films. So the Mouse needs to learn to appreciate the audience it has, and worry about making them happy first.
Could the Disney animation studio use some new blood and new ideas? Yes. A fresh attitude for its next era of filmmaking? Yes. Are they going to get any of these things by pandering to the one demographic that doesn't want anything to do with them? No.
I just hope Disney hangs in there long enough to figure it out for themselves.