Thursday, February 12, 2015

Engineering the ultimate gender crossover

What one task is of utmost importance for studios who make movies for children?

If you answered "Create something that will appeal equally to boys and girls," give yourself a gold star.

We saw Disney openly struggle with this with Tangled, which they refused to name Rapunzel because they thought it was unlikely to woo little boys. (This being one of the only times a person can use the phrase "woo little boys" without feeling icky about it.)

The mentality continued, somewhat, by taking a movie about a punching bad guy brute from a video game (Wreck-It Ralph) and inserting the character into a game where all the colors are some shade of pink. Frozen slouched back toward what they were afraid of with Tangled, appealing more to girls than boys, but the results spoke for themselves. An unnecessary course correction came in last year's Big Hero 6, which wooed mostly only those little boys. (Don't you like how I talk about these movies as though they are conceived and delivered entirely since the most recent previous movie on Disney's release slate, rather than being massive ocean-liners whose course is almost impossible to correct.)

While doing boffo box office with their theatrical releases, though, Disney has also maintained a burgeoning straight-to-video business. And in early 2014 they released a movie that seemed designed to address any and all concerns about which gender would be more interested. Answer? Both.

It's The Pirate Fairy, as you likely surmised from the poster art above. The title contains one masculine word ("pirate"), one feminine word ("fairy") and one definite article ("the"). That's about as split down the middle as you can possibly get.

Too bad we couldn't have seen how it would have done theatrically.

Actually, The Pirate Fairy did have a theatrical release of sorts. It played in some theaters internationally, and played at the El Capitan Theater (but only that one theater) in Hollywood for three weeks in March. But despite boasting A-list vocal talent like Christina Hendricks, Tom Hiddleston, Mae Whitman and Lucy Liu, and looking like a shimmering example of state-of-the-art Disney animation, it was branded with the stigma of straight-to-video.

I know what little I know about The Pirate Fairy because my son borrowed it from the library last week, and watched it twice before he had to return it. Just stopping in the room in passing, I was so taken in by the quality of the images that I almost wanted to plop down on the couch and watch it with him. (My snooty disavowal of films released straight to video ultimately won out.)

My son is Exhibit A of the gender crossover working. I mean, I could take one look at this movie and say "This is a movie intended for girls." But all he saw were the pirates and pirate ships. (Plus, he doesn't yet consciously turn up his nose at things girls like.)

The funny thing is, despite how I've characterized this as some kind of cynical attempt on Disney's part to reach the most number of demographics possible, this movie has ancient origins. It's yet another product from Disney's expanded Peter Pan universe, which has also yielded the kids show Jake and the Never Land Pirates, one of my son's favorites. You could say Peter Pan was one of Disney's original gender crossovers, featuring both both flying sprites (Peter and Tinker Bell) and evil pirates (Captain Hook). In fact, The Pirate Fairy is the sixth in the straight-to-video Tinker Bell series of films, which in the past has included such girl-leaning titles as Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue and Secret of the Wings. Adding the word "pirate" to the title does grab the interest of boys like my son, but it actually adds nothing new to the Peter Pan universe.


One thing I thought was funny about it was that it put me in a position of having to try to explain the concept of a prequel to my son. The villain in The Pirate Fairy is Captain Hook, but it's when he's younger and still has both hands. I don't think my son got this when he was watching because, well, he doesn't look like Captain Hook.

But in a little interlude that gets dropped into the closing credits, you see Hook, vanquished, hanging on to a bobbing wooden barrel in the ocean. He's using a hook to help grapple with the spinning barrel (wink). He's saved when a ship pulls alongside, and over the side pops Smee, Hook's eventual sidekick, who hadn't previously appeared in the movie (according to my son).

Later, my son asked me, "Dad, what was Smee doing there in the ocean?" He clearly didn't get how this story was associated with the world of Peter Pan at all, it taking place some 10 or 20 years earlier.

I tried to explain it, but laughed at myself upon hearing myself say things like "The events of this story take place before the events of Peter Pan." Even if he understood the chronological sequencing I was trying to convey, which is doubtful, he probably wouldn't understand what I was talking about anyway because he has not actually seen Peter Pan. In fact, I'm not even sure if he knows who the character Peter Pan is. I should have told him that it takes place before Jake and the Never Land Pirates, but to be honest, I'm not even sure how that show fits into the larger narrative.

Maybe the thing to do is get our hands on a copy of Peter Pan, and try to start showing him how it all fits together.

That can be the test run that prepares us for the screwy chronology of the Star Wars movies, which we plan to show him next year or the year after.

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