Friday, April 16, 2010

The Roll-Over Effect

I was listening to a discussion recently regarding a film studio’s surprise at the performance of a recent movie of theirs at the box office. Dreamworks was astonished that “How to Train Your Dragon”, which got brilliant reviews from the critics, was performing less well than their previous release, “Monsters vs. Aliens”, whose reviews were lukewarm, at best. As this issue seems to puzzle Disney quite often as well, I thought I’d discuss it. In my opinion, it’s a result of what I refer to as “The Roll-Over Effect”.

My premise is this: audience turnout for a movie from a company like Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks isn’t based as much on what they think of the current film as what their experience was with the previous film. I know that sounds strange, but let me explain. After years of sub-par films, the first big Disney film of its Renaissance was The Little Mermaid. This has become a beloved Disney classic, but only grossed $6 million its opening weekend. Why? Because movie-goers had been trained to expect the likes of The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective. They weren’t anticipating anything truly wonderful.

This works in the other direction, as well. After a hugely successful run, including films such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, Disney was able to get some pretty good numbers out of Pocahontas which, while a good movie, certainly wasn’t in the same league as the others. The following film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, got rave reviews from the critics, but people remembered being less enchanted with Pocahontas than its predecessors, so the turnout wasn’t as good for Hunchback as it may have been if it had immediately followed The Lion King. This downward trend continued until, with the likes of The Emperor’s New Groove and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, theater-goers were about to throw up their hands in frustration. Lilo and Stitch breathed a bit of new life into things, but it wasn’t enough to counter, the disastrous less than stellar Treasure Planet and Home on the Range. Disney then closed the hand-drawn animation studios, to focus on computer generated pictures.

Okay, it’s time for me to rant a little here. I heard an interview with a Disney Studio head claiming that the quality of the films didn’t drop in the mid-nineties; audiences were just tired of the Broadway-style hand-drawn animated films, and wanted them all to be computer-generated. When I heard that, I nearly blew a gasket. I’m sorry, but I think that is complete garbage. Are you trying to tell me that Treasure Planet didn’t do well because it was produced predominately in 2-D animation? News flash; it didn’t do well because it wasn’t a very good movie. If it had been as good as Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, people would have gone to see it.

Although they won’t admit it, Disney is a little disappointed that The Princess and the Frog didn’t get a better reception. But let’s face it, the last hand-drawn film before it was Home on the Range. Disney hadn’t exactly trained its audience to have high hopes. Now, if Tangled is as good as The Princess and the Frog, my guess is that it will do very well. If, that is, Disney hasn’t totally confused audiences with this weird, “we’re too cool to admit we’re doing a princess fairy tale story (because those never work for you, do they Disney?), so we’re going to give it an ambiguous name to peak your interest” marketing plan they have going on.

The roll-over effect has worked very well for Pixar. For any other company, people may have been hesitant to shell out their hard-earned cash to see an animated film about an old guy and some balloons or a robot that doesn’t talk much and has a peculiar Hello Dolly fetish, but we’ve learned to trust Pixar, so we gave them a shot and were rewarded with some fabulous viewing experiences. My hope is that Disney will learn from this. It’s going to take a few back-to-back home runs from Disney before we’re truly going to believe they have a solid animation offense again.

I hope you’ll forgive me if you think I’ve been too harsh, but I’ve gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em. Hopefully, Disney will learn this lesson, and start worrying more about the story they are telling, instead of the medium they are using. What do you think? Please join me at and let me know!


  1. I agree w/you on this..I love the original, animated-artwork-type movies more so than the computer-generated stuff. Some are okay, but to be bombarded w/it~like the all of these 'Tinkerbell' movies that they've been pushing so much is just too much! I'm 'old school Disney', when it comes to favorites are 'Alice in Wonderland' & 'Peter Pan'...'Princess & the Frog' is getting back on track..While I thought it was a 'cute' movie~ I wasn't falling off of my chair w/enthusiasm, after I left the theatre:/
    I just wish Disney would stick to the 'classics' & not all of these wierd, computer-generated movies~to me, that is what set (or has) set them apart from all of the other copycatters..I'm just not a fan of those types of movies:(

  2. I don't think this was harsh at all. I have to agree with a lot of what you said. Once a studio puts out a couple of bad movies its hard to trust them again. I did like The Princess and the Frog, but I won't put it in the same category as Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, but it's almost there. And I much prefer the classic hand drawn animation movies, than the computer generated 3D movies that a lot of studios are putting out. I feel these studios are relying on the special effects more than the story.

  3. You have some valid points, but I do feel that it was a bit harsh at times as well.

    The above comments are harsh as well, IMO.

  4. I agree whole-heartedly with your post. While I prefer some of their releases over others, of course, Pixar has never disappointed me. Disney releases, on the other hand...regardless of what they say, their was a glut of movies that looked cheap and didn't have a good story. The fact that they threw in the towel on traditional animation was them skirting the blame for the films' lackluster performances, in my opinion.