November 30, 2010 / 10:19 AM / in 7 years

"Tangled" shines light on Disney Animation rivals

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - 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 movie theater owners’ 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 phenomenon called “Toy Story 3.”

Meantime, “Tangled” faces something of a Princess problem. Featuring both a princess and a prince in its whimsical story line, “Tangled” nonetheless 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 president 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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