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Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) is the main character in Walt Disney Pictures' animated feature Tangled.
Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) is the main character in Walt Disney Pictures' animated feature Tangled.

How long can Disney stay in the princess game? Add to ...

In its two weeks on screens, Tangled, the new animated take on the Rapunzel legend, has raked in $96.5-million (U.S.), pushed aside Harry Potter for the top box office spot and looks well on its way to becoming a modern Disney classic.

But audiences are embracing the newest Disney princess and her flaxen locks just as a controversy has been brewing over whether the company can bank on the princess juggernaut much longer. And, in turn how much longer many parents will be sustaining their daughters' princess habit.

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It started with a newspaper piece almost three weeks ago quoting Pixar Animation Studios chief Ed Catmull as saying that Tangled was the last fairy tale the studio had lined up for the foreseeable future - because the genre had "run its course."

Mr. Catmull quickly took to the Disney Facebook page to temper his comments. He wrote that the paper's headline, "Disney Animation is closing the book on fairy tales" was wrong.

"I feel it is important to set the record straight that [fairy tales]are alive and well at Disney," he wrote.

Indeed, in a follow-up release Disney confirmed that Pixar's 2012 release Brave will be "a classic Disney fantasy adventure set in a mythical Scotland featuring a plucky female heroine." The Disney Channel has a new show for younger viewers called Little Princess that "takes lessons and characters from our widely-loved canon that began in 1939 with Snow White." There's also a new Little Mermaid attraction opening at Disney California Adventure next year.

Nevertheless, the overriding existential question facing Disney - not to mention parents of princess-crazy girls - still hangs in the air: Should we retire the princess? Is nabbing a handsome prince while wearing a ball gown out of date?

Of course, Disney has tipped its hand by openly tinkering with the princess formula, ostensibly to chase a broader audience. After Disney's last princess flick, Princess and the Frog - which featured its first African-American princess - wasn't as big a hit as hoped, the name of the Rapunzel movie was changed to the more gender-neutral Tangled and the male lead was beefed up. It appears the formula is working.

As both a mother of a toddler who adores Disney princesses and an expert in addictive consumer behaviour, Dante Pirouz is a keen observer of the Disney machine and wonders if the princess message has become too conflicted to be sustainable.

"I've always questioned whether those stories were the right ones, were they universal enough, ethnically diverse enough, showing the right types of models for girls," says the assistant professor of marketing at the Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont. "And I'm sure Disney executives have struggled with that whole question of 'How do we make these characters relevant and smart enough?' "

Prof. Pirouz says it's also not inconceivable that Disney is actually listening to anti-princess cultural critics such as the U.K.-based PinkStinks - in addition to simply chasing wider audiences.

"Money is important. But Disney also has to consider if customers are commenting and groups are saying 'We have a problem with this.' If those voices become loud enough, that's going to impinge on how much money you make."

While Disney meditates on where it really stands on fairy tales and princesses, the uber-profitable princess merchandise - worth about $4-billion (U.S.) a year to the company - certainly isn't being pulled from shelves.

As Matthew Johnson, the director of education at Ottawa's Media Awareness Network pointed out in an e-mail interview, for all the talk of Tangled being a gender-neutral affair, a whole range of pink-hued Tangled-branded items - including a hairdresser-style "Tangled Rapunzel Styling Head" - are being sold online in the Disney Store's bursting princess category.

"Basically, Disney hopes to have it two ways - broadcasting the movies and narrowcasting the merchandising."

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