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Disney hopes its 2-D 'Princess and the Frog' doesn't fall flat

Hoping to build excitement, rollout starts early for the studio's first hand-drawn animated movie in years.

September 11, 2009|Dawn C. Chmielewski

First rule of movie marketing: With a hard sell, sell the faithful first.

So it was with Walt Disney Co., which on Thursday used a gathering of thousands of loyal Disney fans to unveil "The Princess and the Frog," perhaps the studio's riskiest movie in years.

Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger used the assembly of devoted followers at the Anaheim Convention Center, many of them sporting Mickey T-shirts, to screen a major portion of the film that marks the studio's return to hand-drawn animation.

The film and its subject matter -- a contemporary twist on the fairy tale of a frog prince who desperately wants to be human again -- are reminiscent of classic Disney tales of yore. Indeed, the movie adds another tiara-wearing princess -- the first African American one -- to a lineage of cinematic royalty that dates back all the way to 1937's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

Iger took the stage at the start of Disney's D23 Expo, where attendees posed for photographs near a steel-and-plexiglass replica of Cinderella's pumpkin carriage, sat for tea with the Mad Hatter from Tim Burton's upcoming noir interpretation of "Alice in Wonderland" and played a video-game version of the "Toy Story Midway Mania" theme park attraction. The expo is conceived as sort of an in-house Comic-Con to whip up enthusiasm for Disney's movies, TV shows, video games and theme park attractions.

"Nowhere do we shine more brightly than in classic Disney animation," Iger said to applause as he announced the 30-minute screening, adding, "Promise me you'll go see the rest when it opens."

Extracting such an assurance from hard-core Disney fans might not be difficult. But with the wider public, "Princess and the Frog" presents potential obstacles.

In recent years, ever-more-sophisticated computer-generated animation has become the norm for animated films, supplanting the hand-drawn style associated with scores of Disney classics.

In 2004, after a string of box-office disappointments -- including "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," "Treasure Planet" and "Home on the Range" -- Disney abandoned the painstaking art form it had popularized. Executives felt audiences preferred the new 3-D computer animation.

Pixar Animation's creative guru, John Lasseter, who had been trained by longtime Disney animators, worked to revive the 2-D tradition when he assumed oversight of Disney Animation Studios following the 2006 acquisition of Pixar.

Animation veterans say contemporary viewers -- who are accustomed to watching simply drawn cartoons like Disney's "Phineas and Ferb" on TV, lushly animated classics like "Cinderella" on DVD and more stylized computer-rendered offerings like "Up" in theaters -- are indifferent to the filmmaker's visual style.

"If it's good storytelling, the medium becomes invisible to the audience," said Bonnie Arnold, a producer whose credits include Pixar's "Toy Story," Disney's "Tarzan" and DreamWorks Animation's "Over the Hedge."

Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, dismissed concerns about audience reaction to old-style animation.

"Audiences are attracted to great stories and great characters. It's always been the case and always will be the case," Cook said. "I've never heard a child ever tell a parent, 'I'm not going to go to that, that was hand-drawn.' "

Disney executives frequently point to the success of the 2002 surprise hit "Lilo & Stitch," which generated $273 million in worldwide ticket sales, as proof that audiences haven't tired of traditional animation as long as they find the story engaging.

Instead, a more difficult challenge for Disney and "Princess and the Frog" may lie in the movie's title: The age at which children outgrow the happily-ever-after world of fairy tales has gotten younger and younger.

"When my kids were growing up, you could stretch it to 8, 9, 10 maybe," said Penney Finkelman Cox, executive producer of DreamWorks' "Antz" and "Shrek."

"Now it's so hard to get kids interested in seeing a 2-D movie unless it's [Hayao] Miyazaki," the acclaimed Japanese animation writer and director, she said. "How do you get the kids to come out, other than the really young kids, who go where their parents take them?"

Ten-year-old Alyssa Vis, who traveled to the expo with her grandmother from Saskatchewan, Canada, said she had collected signatures of all the Disney princesses from the theme parks. But these days, Disney's royalty hold less appeal to her than classic characters do.

"I like them," Alyssa said. "But if I have a chance to see them or Mickey and Donald, I'd see the other Disney characters."

Still, she was enchanted by the snippet of "Princess and the Frog."

"It was really good," she said. "I can't wait to see it now."

Not taking chances, Disney plans a promotional blitzkrieg to put "The Princess and the Frog" on every child's radar.

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