LOS ANGELES—About two years ago, employees who managed Walt Disney Co.’s princess characters gathered to watch an extended scene from an unreleased movie.
The executives had spent years cultivating Ariel, Elsa and Snow White as highly profitable models of femininity. The footage they saw, from this month’s animated feature “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” revealed the princesses as everyday young women, on break from their jobs as Disney royalty.
Elsa and Sleeping Beauty have their hair down and wear pajamas. Snow White shows off her Coke-bottle glasses. Cinderella shatters her glass slipper and thrusts it forward like a broken bottle at a girl who walks into the room. Rapunzel asks her, “Do people assume all your problems get solved because a big, strong man showed up?”
“Everyone audibly gasped,” according to a person present. In their eyes, the scene broke all of the Disney rules that had built the princesses into a lucrative brand.
For nearly 20 years, Disney employees have debated how far the company should go in updating its heroines for the modern age. The crux: How do you keep princesses relevant without alienating fans who hold fast to the versions they grew up with? Billions of dollars of revenue—dolls, sequels, stage shows and dresses—hang on getting that balance right.
Since “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937, the princess characters have trained generations of young moviegoers on men, women, relationships and love. The franchise, especially its older films, has been criticized for promoting outdated notions of femininity and damsel-in-distress narratives in which only a man can save the day.
Parents are wrestling with the messages the stories send their children—is it acceptable for the prince to kiss Sleeping Beauty, given she’s sleeping? The tension has grown more pronounced in an era of female presidential candidates, women’s marches and #MeToo.
Disney develops and manages characters such as Mulan or Rapunzel similar to the way Apple Inc. handles new iPhone models, with a secretive process that allows the princesses to debut in public fully formed. Interviews with nearly two dozen current and former employees working across Disney’s sprawling princess operations reveal a perennial push-and-pull over getting the mix of tradition and modernity right, from producing remakes and merchandise built around longtime characters to introducing new characters.
“They’ve tried to make the princesses more independent and to have more of a voice, but at the same time there’s a recognition that there’s also an appeal—even if it’s not as modern—to pretty dresses and beautiful castles,” said one former Disney executive.
Disney declined to make executives available for an interview.
More than 80 years after “Snow White” hit theaters, Disney still sells figurines, Grumpy costumes and themed Play-Doh sets. “Frozen” has become one of Disney’s greatest hits, spawning a sequel, a Broadway adaptation and countless “Let It Go” downloads since it hit theaters five years ago. The live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast” collected $1.26 billion (U.S.) at the global box office in 2017.
Employees who work on the princess brand—they can number in the hundreds when a new movie is in production, with groups across consumer products, parks, animation and television—try to find the right balance that will resonate with the largest number of fans. Hundred-page manifestos outlining the colors, language and attitude that licensees and designers should use for each princess are treated as gospel. Data is mined from sources ranging from academic studies to toddler focus groups at the company’s campus in Burbank, Calif.
The characters have grown more complex over the years. That hasn’t prevented debates from forming in recent years over princess outfits, live-action updates and the word “princess” itself.
“No matter how hard you try, a 4-year-old girl is going to want to be a Little Mermaid,” said one former Disney executive. “But if they try to make Ariel into a lawyer, there’s going to be a huge backlash.”
Disney’s efforts must resonate with consumers like Lesley Godbey, a 31-year-old mother of two in San Diego.
Ms. Godbey’s daughters worship the Disney princesses, much like she did growing up with Ariel and Belle in the 1990s. She even dresses as Belle at fan conventions, posing for photos in the character’s signature canary-yellow dress.
When she’s reading princess stories to her daughters, she also wants them to know there’s more to life than the fairy-tale telling, so she has taught them a call-and-response.
If a story ends with “And they lived happily ever after,” her daughters chime in, “with lots of hard work and open communication!”
After the “Ralph Breaks the Internet” screening, executives worried that too many toys and apparel around the edgier version of the princesses could overshadow the traditional representations, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Retailers expressed interest in princess dolls and clothes pegged to the “Ralph” release, this person said. Disney put together some merchandise, including a doll set featuring the princesses in everyday clothes as well as shirts for young girls modeled after the princesses’ pajamas. After fans embraced the scene, some Disney executives questioned why they hadn’t pushed even more product around it.
The movie’s filmmakers had a crucial ally for the updated portrayal: former chief creative officer John Lasseter, who had long wanted to bring the princesses down to earth, colleagues say. Mr. Lasseter had received approval and support for the scene from Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger, the CEO, according to people familiar with the matter.
“If I were to make the movies you guys wanted me to make about princesses, I would be murdered,” Mr. Lasseter once told a group raising concerns about the character Merida’s cynical attitude in “Brave,” according to a former colleague. He said, “I couldn’t make the movies Walt Disney made today.”
Mr. Lasseter couldn’t be reached for comment. He left Disney earlier this year following allegations he had inappropriately touched subordinates. After the allegations surfaced, he sent a letter to employees apologizing to “anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of an unwanted hug or any other gesture.”
His successors, Pete Docter at Pixar and Jennifer Lee at Disney Animation, have strong track records of strong female characters in movies such as “Inside Out” and “Frozen.”
Among Disney’s imminent tests: A sequel to “Frozen” is slated for next year, and a small group of fans have called for a lesbian love interest for Elsa. Live-action remakes of “Aladdin” and “Mulan” are in the works. At Disney, and the industry in general, sales of toys tied to movie releases have fallen in recent years, putting more pressure on the princess team to sell dolls and dresses.
Meanwhile, new role models, such as Rey, the lightsaber-wielding protagonist of the Disney “Star Wars” features, have won over young girls. The Disney television shows “Elena of Avalor” and “Sofia the First” portray more independent heroines.
In October, actress Kristen Bell—the voice of Anna in “Frozen”—told Parents magazine she dissects the older princess narratives with her daughters.
“Don’t you think it’s weird that the prince kisses Snow White without her permission?” she said.
Keira Knightley, a star of Disney’s recent “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” said last month on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” that she’s kept “The Little Mermaid” from her home because of Ariel’s decision to forfeit her voice to find love: “I mean, the songs are great, but do not give your voice up for a man. Hello?!”
Melissa Villaneuva, a 28-year-old mother of two in Los Angeles, said her mother would show her movies like “The Little Mermaid” and “Snow White” and tell her, as the credits rolled, “You have to find someone to take care of you.”
Movie nights with her son and daughter, ages 11 and 10, now feature more empowered narratives like “Tangled” and “Brave.”
“I don’t want them to think like I did,” Ms. Villaneuva said.
The modern Disney princess business dates to 2000, when a company executive named Andy Mooney attended a Disney on Ice show in Phoenix. He found himself surrounded by young girls in homemade princess costumes.
Why couldn’t they buy such a dress at a Disney store? he thought, according to published interviews. Mr. Mooney declined to comment.
Until that point, merchandising for older Disney princesses went on sale only if it was part of a coming movie’s campaign. Mr. Mooney’s idea: Build a franchise that sells toys and dresses and books about classic characters like Snow White and Cinderella along with newer heroines such as Ariel and Belle.
In 2000, sales for the princess division were worth $300 million. By 2009, they had reached $4 billion, Disney says.
The new concept came with a crucial rule, invisible to most everyday fans, that is still practiced by princess purists at Disney today, employees say.
Animators must draw princesses’ eyes looking in different directions when they appear on the same lunch box or poster. That’s because the princesses are not to live in the same imagined universe, even if they’re adjacent to each other in the physical world.
“Ariel and Belle wouldn’t be friends. Cinderella and Snow White wouldn’t know each other,” said one former Disney executive.
That rule was thrown out the window with the scene in “Ralph Breaks the Internet”—and breaking it was a major reason behind some employees’ consternation.
For several years following its creation, Disney’s princess franchise worked with both classic and modern characters, such as Belle, known for her bookishness, and Mulan, the Asian warrior princess. Remakes and merchandise related to the classic characters renewed criticism of the old-fashioned narratives.
In 2009, Disney released “The Princess and the Frog,” its first animated princess movie in more than a decade, starring Tiana, the company’s first African-American heroine. It grossed a disappointing $104 million at the box office. It remains the company’s lowest-grossing princess movie.
Tiana’s introduction was a breakthrough, but the movie’s performance had the princess workers worried the word “princess” itself was a liability.
With budgets for animated movies often approaching $200 million, Disney needs to appeal to a range of young moviegoers to achieve the blockbuster grosses that ensure profitability. The word “princess,” they worried, alienated boys.
The next year, a princess movie about the long-haired Rapunzel was called “Tangled.” Two years after that, a movie about Merida, the pugnacious redhead princess was titled “Brave.”
Sometimes the company’s other attempts to steer away from the girlier aspects of princesses backfired among some employees.
Before the release of “Frozen” in 2013, some consumer-products executives thought moviegoers—and specifically boys—would respond to Olaf, the goofy snowman sidekick of the film, people familiar with the matter said. Mr. Lasseter didn’t want the movie’s marketing to focus too much on the sisters and risk being written off as just another princess movie, his former colleagues said.
For some Disney employees, Elsa and Anna embodied just the kind of message they wanted to send—only to see higher-ups play it down for fear of alienating boys.
“The creative side has leeway and scope. And then there is this massive, unwieldy side dictated by middle management that can really dumb up the machinery, which is why you can have a progressive film like ‘Frozen’ but then see that the company focuses consumer products on Olaf,” said one former Disney executive who worked on the princess brand.
Olaf ultimately took a small role in a consumer products campaign centered on the princesses, and stores still ran out of dolls and dresses inspired by Elsa, the movie’s strong-willed heroine. “Frozen” collected $1.28 billion at the world-wide box office.
Soon after “Frozen” came the adaptation of “Cinderella,” the first of several planned live-action updates to older titles. These modern-day versions, employees say, forced Disney to look at its classic characters with fresh eyes.
The prince in the 1950 “Cinderella” original has only six lines of dialogue—two of which are, “Wait!” Chris Weitz, writer of the 2015 live-action version, wanted to deepen the prince’s character to make him “worth Cinderella’s attention.” He said, “Cinderella is, in a way, the most regressive fantasy of the Disney princess. If you were just to read it, it says what you need to save you is a handsome and wealthy man—who in fact she doesn’t know very well.”
Sections of dialogue were added to the 2017 live-action “Beauty and the Beast” to contend with what director Bill Condon called the “Stockholm syndrome” of a story about a young woman who falls in love with her captor. Mr. Condon said he was pushed by Emma Watson, the 28-year-old actress playing Belle, to include dialogue that showed her resistance:
Beast: You think you could be happy here?
Belle: Can anybody be happy if they’re not free?
The live-action “Aladdin,” due for release in May, elevates the role of Jasmine from the cartoon version, where she was often secondary to Aladdin’s antics. A live-action “Mulan,” currently in production for a 2020 release, features Chinese actress Liu Yifei leading an Asian cast in the story of a young woman who disguises herself as a man to join in a battle.
Even modern-day princesses have caused problems after they have left theaters. Merida of “Brave,” for instance, was considered “too thick” in girth by some employees when the movie was first conceived, according to employees. The argument was eventually overruled.
In 2013, still selling figurines and posters of Merida a year after the movie’s release, Disney released a new image of the character. The update, marking her official coronation as a Disney princess, gave her a cinched waist and cleavage.
After fan outcry over the slimmer, glammed-up Merida, Disney returned to the original version. For months afterward, employees say, confused designers wondered: “Which version of Merida are we using?”
The next test will come soon enough with “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” In the summer of 2017, Disney showed the princess clip that had divided its own employees at an annual gathering of die-hard fans, some dressed as princesses themselves.
The audience burst into applause.
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