It sounds like it should be a joke. What do you call the life of a white American man who claimed an uninhabited part of Africa so his daughter could be a princess? A Disney movie! This is the true story of Disney buying the life rights to the true story of Jeremiah Heaton—the "King" of "Kingdom of North Sudan." In short, he promised his daughter she could be a princess and, on her 7th birthday, he planted a flag in "no man's land." Disney plans to call the movie "The Princess of North Sudan." Yes, it's true and yes, he made a promotional video about it (below). And yes, Disney's move is genius.
The Twitter-verse (#PrincessofNorthSudan) brought allegations of Disney endorsing colonialism, treating Africa "like a toy," and making a white girl their first African princess. I'm sure these are all well-thought out points because they're on Twitter. The 140 character limit naturally lends itself to deep thought. However, as an extremely biased Disney fan—and I mean blog-about-Disney-almost-every-day biased—there are two reasons why Disney's move to make this story is genius.
First, Disney is really bad at making PG-13 movies
I'll be the first to acknowledge that this is a weird story line for Disney to tackle. This especially rings true after Disney Animation Studios/Pixar Chief John Lasseter was recently quoted as saying "It’s very important to us … to have female and ethnic characters."
Nevertheless, Disney's need for diversity is only equaled by their remarkably unsuccessful record of making PG-13 films. Marvel notwithstanding, Disney has trouble with anything beyond PG. Here are the domestic box-office takes and production budgets for Disney's past five PG-13 movies, according to Box-Office Mojo:
- Saving Mr. Banks ($83M box-office / $35M production)
- The Lone Ranger ($89M bo / $215M prod)
- John Carter ($73M bo / $250M prod)
- Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ($241M bo / $250M prod)
- Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time ($90M bo / $200M prod)
Basically, any PG-13 movie not based on a 1960's Disney property (Pirates of the Caribbean, Saving Mr. Banks) fails miserably. Even when you add in their international box-office stats, the remaining three barely cover their production budget. Disney can't figure out how to make a solid PG-13 movie that isn't a box-office flop.
"The Princess of North Sudan" can change that. It seems almost impossible for a company—Disney or otherwise—to insert Sudan into a movie with a PG rating. What if Disney were to take us to a war-torn country and have audiences face Heaton's colonialism? Unlikely? Sure, but Disney's past PG-13 efforts aren't working. "The Princess of North Sudan" could offer a change in direction that can help Disney fix a problem it has had for years. Rather than doing the same thing and expecting different results, Disney could use this opportunity to branch into a new movie genre. A gritty Disney film would be interesting to see and would be a genius move for the company.
The second reason Disney's move to buy the rights to Heaton's story is genius is based on Disney's core movie-making principle.
Disney Buys the Rights. The Rest is Fantasy
If you've read this far, you are probably already a Disney fan and know that their most famous stories are based on narratives that loosely resemble what ends up in the film. Huffington Post was kind enough to provide examples, such as:
- The Little Mermaid - The Prince marries a different woman and Ariel throws herself into the sea and dies.
- The Fox and The Hound - Copper (the dog) is shot at the end.
- Pinocchio - Pinocchio kills his talking cricket. So long Jiminey.
No one—not even me—watches Disney for their strength as documentarians. Their most recent attempt—Disney Nature's Monkey Kingdom—was painful to sit through. The films that are "based on a true story," however—Miracle, Remember the Titans, McFarland USA—tend to perform extremely well.
If you haven't already, watch the video above starting at about the 2:30 minute mark. It talks about Heaton's desire to build a farm that could feed the world. The farm is based on revolutionary farming techniques like hydroponics—the same farming technique Disney uses to grow fruits and vegetables in its EPCOT theme park in Walt Disney World. Now, take away the part about the dad colonizing "no man's land" and tell the story about a little girl asking her dad if they could build a garden to feed the world. Add an element that invites people to go to Walt Disney World and Voila! That's a Disney movie.
A garden to feed the world is an awesome story. Instead of endorsing colonialism, treating Africa like a toy, or making a white girl their first African princess, Disney is most-likely working on some "mostly true" version of the story that inspires young women. What's more, Disney knows that when they don't buy the rights to a story they loosely borrow from, they end up getting sued. (I'm looking at you Frozen teaser trailer).
So in the end, Disney's plans for "The Princess of North Sudan" may actually inspire young women to pursue their dreams and not get them sued. Let the real world deal with colonization and white African princesses. Disney is very-likely to stick to what they're good at—fantasy. It's genius.