Old school animation and a brand-new princess could spell big success for Disney. "Princess & the Frog" is rolling out to nearly 3,500 theaters this weekend, and it's poised to top the box office.
A limited release in just two theaters—one in New York, one in Southern California—grossed $2.8 m in 16 days. That puts the film on track to top the weekend. And after CEO Bob Iger so criticized the film studio for disappointing, Wall Street will be watching to see if this movie is part of a turn around.
The movie features Disney's first-ever African American princess, which has attracted support from Oprah, a consultant on the film. Though it drew criticism for stereotyping earlier in the year before any press screenings, it manages to handle issues of race in the South -- I think these concerns won't turn out to be an issue. Having Oprah on board certainly helps.
More notably, the movie has a feel-good, girl-power message that should resonate with parents. The "Princess" isn't looking for a Prince; she's focused on her aspirations of opening up her own restaurant. Hard work and family are valued over wealth and title. As a woman who was raised on "Sleeping Beauty and Snow White," and didn't turn out any worse for it, I still think it's nice to see a modern improvement on the tales of Princesses trapped in a distant tower, waiting to be saved.
The movie cost a reported $150 million, which seems like a significant investment considering that hand-drawn animation tends to appeal primarily to kids while Pixar movies draw all ages. But Disney isn't looking for a big first-weekend pop, it's hoping to create the kind of long-burn that will draw families through the entire month and will sell DVDs for years.
But MKM Partners analyst Eric Handler says that going with traditional hand-drawn 2D animation carries higher-than average risk in this era of digital 3D. He points out that Disney's last hand-drawn feature was "Home on the Range," which grossed just $50 million in 2004. Handler also notes that "Princess" has a lot working in its favor —starting with a marketing campaign will attract those girls who are already committed consumers of Disney's "Princess" brand.
And "Princess" isn't just a movie —Disney is investing in a brand to exploit across the company. It's a natural fit for its multi-billion dollar "Princesses" franchise, which reaches from the corners of the theme parks to consumer products, to a remarkably resilient and robust DVD business. Disney is making a new, more modern addition to its pantheon of hand-drawn Princesses. Even if the box office isn't as huge for this movie as a Pixar flick, it still seems like a wise way to diversify Disney's princesses for a new generation.
For Disney, "Princess" isn't just a movie, it's a brand which it plans to develop and exploit across all of its businesses.
Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com