The Number One Movie in America:
The Princess and the Frog
By Sean Collier
March 18, 2021
The folks at Disney had some theories about “The Princess and the Frog.”
The 2009 animated film pulled in $104 million. That’s a figure many films would love to reach, yet a low total for Disney — and for animation more broadly, especially in the family-friendly 2000s, when film from rival studios like DreamWorks posted eye-popping numbers. While we’re now accustomed to most Disney and Pixar flicks being near the top of the year-end box-office podium, “The Princess and the Frog” only managed a 32nd-place finish among the year’s features.
Some Disney execs later opined that putting the word “princess” in the title was a gaffe, inadvertently telling consumers that the film was targeted solely at young girls. (You’ll note that gendered words mostly disappeared from Disney and Pixar properties going forward; at one point, “Frozen” was named after its source material, “The Snow Queen.”)
The middling performance also caused the Mouse House to question whether hand-drawn animation had run its course. “The Princess and the Frog” stands as Disney’s penultimate traditionally drawn feature; only 2011’s “Winnie the Pooh,” also a box-office disappointment, has since involved actual ink and paper.
Those explanations may have merit, but that’s not why “The Princess and the Frog” underperformed. There is, rather, a one-word explanation for the Creole-themed cartoon’s results. That word: “Avatar.”
One week after “The Princess and the Frog” went wide, James Cameron’s 3D space epic was released. It proceeded to win seven consecutive weekends in dominant fashion, obliterating everything else at the box office. In December of 2009 and January of 2010, everyone wanted to see how far Cameron had advanced the possibilities of 3D cinema, temporarily making “Avatar” the top-grossing film of all time.
“Avatar” was a PG-13, four-quadrant release, pulling in any viewer who didn’t mind the chunky glasses. Everything playing against it suffered. “The Princess and the Frog” dropped nearly 50% when “Avatar” was released, as did fellow family feature “A Christmas Carol.” The second “Twilight” film lost 44%. New releases as divergent as “It’s Complicated,” “Sherlock Holmes” and “The Book of Eli” were denied the box-office crown, all falling to continued “Avatar” dominance.
Furthermore, “The Princess and the Frog” didn’t actually represent much of a dip from the prior Disney films of the era. Separating out Walt Disney Animation Studios features from Pixar and co-branded efforts, “Princess and the Frog” only did a bit worse than its direct predecessor, “Bolt” ($114.1 million). It outperformed the feature before that, “Meet the Robinsons” ($97.8 million). It trounced several of the studio’s lesser efforts from earlier in the decade, such as “Home on the Range” ($50 million) and “Treasure Planet” ($38.2 million).
Make a pretty good (but not great) film and put it up against the biggest movie in box-office history to date, and you should be happy to cross the $100 million mark.
“The Princess and the Frog” is indeed good-not-great, as its considerable merits — the villain song, “Friends on the Other Side,” is worth the price of admission alone, and the animation is quite impressive — are weighed against a circuitous, unsatisfying plot. The film has a commendable voice cast and a good dash of magic. It could’ve done with a bit more of Tiana in human form — a problem which alludes to greater issues of representation, a field in which “Princess and the Frog” is at best a mixed bag — but it’s a sturdy enough entry in the Disney canon.
You just couldn’t compete with “Avatar” in 2009. Disney knows this perfectly well; eventually, they folded “Avatar” property into their own legacy, complete with theme-park rides and exclusive streaming on Disney+.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Or, in this case, if they’ve already beat you, buy ’em.
“The Princess and the Frog” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1977. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: We do what everyone should’ve done, as we ignore the sequel and just watch the original.