Analysis: Does 'Tangled's' Big Bow Signal Disney Animation's Return to Greatness?

7:21 PM PST 11/29/2010 by Carl DiOrio
Disney

Title gets off to a good start at the box office but still falls short of corporate sibling Pixar's heady success.

To damn with faint praise: The opening box office for Tangled during the holiday-stretched weekend represented the best for any non-Pixar animated release by Disney in years.

For though undeniably strong, the $68.7 million rung up by the Disney-branded movie during its first five days also serves to underscore some internecine rivalry among the studio's movie animators. And unless Tangled continues to outpace expectations during the length of its theatrical run, its Burbank animators will continue to struggle with the knotty problem of competing with their corporate kin at Pixar.

Pixar's John Lasseter now helps steer creative activities at Disney Animation, so it's perhaps no surprise that there's finally a spreading sense of revitalization at Disney Animation, which like Pixar produces and releases its movies in 3D. Disney-branded animated releases have fared a bit better both critically and commercially in the past few years after a long, flaccid period for the once-proud label.

But a true return to greatness for Disney Animation won't mean simply matching the undeniably impressive $217 million run by Aladdin in 1992. It would be something more along the lines of the $317 million campaign recorded two years later by The Lion King.

That's how high the bar has been raised by Pixar in the past decade and a half.

When Disney bought the Northern California hit factory in 2006 and began cranking out hits for its Burbank parent, the move only formalized the casting of Disney's legacy toon unit as a ne'er-do-well sibling incapable of matching the many successes of its adoptive kin.

Its big first frame means Tangled is almost certain to make back its $150 million-plus in production costs after accounting for exhibitors' split of receipts. Whether that's enough to buff the Disney animated brand appreciably is another question.

"There's no denying that the animation guys want to restore the luster of the brand," a studio insider noted.

The most recent previous Disney-branded release -- November 2009's The Princess and the Frog -- wooed $104 million domestically and decent reviews from critics. But with much stronger appeal among girls than boys, Frog was unable to hop to a more rarefied range of success.

Pixar's most recent offering? A little $415 million phenom called Toy Story 3.

Meantime, Tangled faces something of a Princess problem. Featuring both a princess and a prince in its whimsical story line, Tanglednonetheless plays more like a movie for girls than an obvious magnet for their brothers.

"Our filmmakers have delivered a very competitive picture to the marketplace, and I expect that our audiences will totally embrace this film," Disney distribution boss Chuck Viane said.

Essentially a retelling of the Rapunzel fable, Tangled might have opened during Thanksgiving weekend with more support from girls than boys, but it should broaden into more diverse appeal based on positive word-of-mouth, he said.

"Having just taken my two granddaughters and my grandson to see the picture, I can see they all walked away with their different hot points," Viane said. "He especially loved the rapscallion in the movie and some other characters. But there's no question they all walked out of there with huge smiles on their faces."

Still, even Disney insiders acknowledge the limitations of movies based on fairy tales.

As a result, there will be a concerted shift into more modern themes with future projects. But 2002's $146 million grosser Lilo & Stitch shows that's no sure-fire road to mega-riches for Disney Animation.

At some point, Disney may just accept a lower natural water level for the Disney brand and strategically peg Pixar as its higher-end animated brand.

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