Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Revisiting "A Little Princess" v. "Casper"

This has been an exciting summer at the movies, full of giant tentpoles and franchises, with a few original properties staunchly holding their ground too.  Yet, none of these clashes have been as gripping to watch as the one that happened between two children's films twenty years ago, a clash that you can still see the repercussions of in how the movie industry operates today. 
In early May of 1995, Warner Brothers released an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's "A Little Princess," to huge critical acclaim.  It was lauded by practically everyone who saw it, and several prominent critics got the behind the movie.  The trouble was the Warner Brothers couldn't sell it.  Everything about the film's marketing seemed lackluster, from the posters to the trailers, failing to capture the film's low-key charms.  There wasn't much marketing either, as Warners opted for a smaller release, initially only opening "A Little Princess" in about 1300 theaters, with plans to expand later.  That expansion never happened.
The week after "Princess" hit theaters, "Casper" from Universal was released.  "Casper," which had been heavily marketed for weeks as the big summer kids' film from executive producer Steven Spielberg, opened to crummy reviews, but raked in $22 million its first weekend.  "Casper" opened in twice the number of theaters that "A Little Princess" did and completely steamrollered it for the rest of the summer.  When all was said and done, "Casper" had a domestic gross of $100 million.  "A Little Princess" made $10 million, even after an attempted rerelease in August.  And the only reason I know this is because the Los Angeles Times was documenting all of it. 
All through that summer they published op-ed pieces, analysis pieces, and plenty of readers' letters speculating as to why Warners couldn't get anyone to watch "A Little Princess."  Again and again people pointed to the release strategy and the marketing.  It looked like a movie aimed only at little girls.  It had "Princess" in the title.  It was clearly a holiday picture rather than a summer one.  Nobody knew it existed because the ads were so sparse.  There were no toys or tie-ins to create extra awareness.  This was 1995, when summer movie season wasn't totally dominated by big event movies, and you could still take risks with prestige films now and then - but suddenly everything about "A Little Princess" looked foolhardy.
There were a few stories featuring interviews with the Warner marketing execs themselves, who apparently took all of these criticisms to heart.  One even joked that they should have released "A Little Princess" under the title "Batman 4."  What came across, though, is that they believed in the movie and that everyone at the studio had tried wholeheartedly to do right by it.  And so I always think about them and the fate of "A Little Princess" whenever I hear complaints about the studios not having the guts to put out more challenging, more ambitious summer fare.  This is what happens, kids.  Your heartfelt, life-affirming masterpiece gets beaten up by CGI cartoon ghosties making fart jokes.
Twenty years later, I don't think any major studio would even finance "A Little Princess," let alone try releasing it in May.  Sadly the film has passed into almost total obscurity, though some of its chief creative talent has flourished.  This was director Alphonso Cuaron's English language debut, long before "Children of Men" or "Gravity."  Emmanuel Lubezki picked up an Oscar nomination for the film's gorgeous cinematography - his first of many.  I'm also gratified that actor Liam Cunningham, who plays the title character's father, is getting more attention these days - you might recognize him as Davos from "Game of Thrones."
Note that "Casper" has also quietly disappeared from the public consciousness too, despite several direct-to-video sequels and a Saturday morning cartoon following in the movie's wake.  The character is reportedly being prepped for yet another reboot over at Dreamworks, but the 1995 film seems to be remembered chiefly for James Horner's lovely, melancholy score.  Looking at it now, "Casper" is very much a product of its time, with little that holds up, though I still have some nostalgic affection for it. 
And what of the summer movie season?  Well, we're not getting any more delicate adaptations of Victorian era children's novels, but there are still a few studios attempting to try something new and different every year - Disney/PIXAR's "Inside Out" about the inner world of a little girl inspires a lot of optimism that audiences can still be drawn to quality over pandering, even when the subject matter might be difficult.
Provided that the marketing campaign takes no prisoners, of course. 

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