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Disney Recycles Fairy Tales, Minus the Cartoons

Walt Disney Co. ’s animation legacy has been defined by movies like “Cinderella,” “The Jungle Book,” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Now those same titles are its live-action future.

After years in which it has been marred by flops such as “John Carter” and lived in the shadow of corporate siblings Pixar Animation Studios and Marvel Entertainment, Walt Disney Pictures is remaking itself as a home for live-action versions of classic fairy tales made famous by another sibling, Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Production President Sean Bailey ’s goal is to make films about princesses and lost boys the equivalent of Marvel’s superhero hits: thematically connected and naturally carrying along similar audiences—in this case largely female—from one story to the next.

“We view the fairy tale space as our arena,” Mr. Bailey, a former producer and writer who joined Disney in 2010, said in an interview.

“Cinderella,” which opens Friday, is a song-free but otherwise remarkably loyal version of the 1950 animated classic. Pre-release surveys indicate a largely female audience will power it to a strong opening of close to $ 70 million. The movie was made for about $ 100 million.

Fairy tales and other old classics carry their own risk. Unlike Marvel’s superheroes, the characters and stories are in the public domain, meaning they are fair game for rivals.

Time Warner Inc. ’s Warner Bros. this summer will release “Pan,” beating Disney to the punch on a title it was also developing. Warner will release its own “Jungle Book” in 2017 and has a “Beauty and the Beast” script. Comcast Corp. ’s Universal Pictures is developing “The Little Mermaid” while both Disney and Sony Pictures Entertainment have live-action versions of “Robin Hood” in the works.

Working off of other classic children’s stories, Disney will follow up next year with “The Jungle Book,” showcasing computer-generated animals with a real boy, and the sequel “Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass.” “Beauty and the Beast,” featuring the same songs as the 1992 animated hit, will likely follow in 2017. Also in active development is a new version of “Dumbo” to be directed by Tim Burton.

Walt Disney Pictures’ box-office history explains the strategy. Outside of the blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean” series,” its only movies to gross more than $ 500 million world-wide since 2005 were the first “Alice in Wonderland” with Johnny Depp and “Maleficent,” a twist on “Sleeping Beauty” starring Angelina Jolie. They grossed $ 1.03 billion and $ 812 million globally, respectively.

Its big-budget forays into more generic action-adventure movies included the unsuccessful “Lone Ranger,” “Prince of Persia” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” as well as “John Carter.”

Like Pixar and Disney Animation, which regularly beat rivals in their crowded space, Mr. Bailey is betting that a mix of high quality and his corporate parent’s brand power will give his slate of pictures an edge.

Disney has promoted “Cinderella,” for example, at its theme parks, created new products to sell at its stores and other retailers, and advertised it with a direct connection to “Alice,” “Maleficent” and “Frozen.”

We view the fairy tale space as our arena

—Sean Bailey, Walt Disney Pictures

When it comes to creative execution, Mr. Bailey’s group has rejected the more mature approaches of films like Universal’s “Snow White and the Huntsman.” After considering a similarly edgy take on “Cinderella,” the company decided on a straight-ahead retelling.

Some filmmakers and agents said Disney takes a more heavy-handed approach to such films than other Hollywood studios, a charge Mr. Bailey doesn’t deny.

“We’re Disney making ‘Cinderella,’ so you have to work with us in a different way,” he said. The costume designer was told up front, for example, that she shouldn’t consider any colors for the title character’s ball gown except the animated version’s classic blue.

Director Kenneth Branagh said he knew from the outset a Disney “Cinderella” would need a pumpkin that turned into a coach and mice into horses. “They wanted a classical approach,” he said, “by which I mean an exterior that looks like you expect but on the inside…a sense of the characters’ inner lives.”

The new movie gives the stepmother (played by Cate Blanchett ) a back story to explain her cruelty, the prince a relationship with his father, and the title character a reason she doesn’t run from home or fight back.

Despite the focus on fairy tales, Walt Disney Pictures has one of this summer’s riskiest movies in “Tomorrowland,” which features a title known to theme park visitors but, like the original “Pirates of the Caribbean,” an original story. Mr. Bailey said he aims to make other non-fairy tale “event” pictures, although none besides a fifth “Pirates” is currently planned.

The studio also produces two or three movies a year known internally as “brand deposits”—inspiring stories like the recent “McFarland USA” intended to reflect well on the Disney brand. Because they are produced at smaller budgets, such films are usually financially insignificant whether they succeed or fail.

“Brand deposits” also have no potential for sequels—the Holy Grail in modern Hollywood. The same would seem to be true for fairy tales, but Disney is betting the opposite. The “Alice” follow-up will feature an original story set in Wonderland and Mr. Bailey said he sees the same potential in the world of “Cinderella.”

Write to Ben Fritz at ben.fritz@wsj.com

WSJ.com: US Business

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