Photographer: George Frey/Getty Images
Retail

Take Your Kids to Moana, But Buy Them Frozen Dolls

Disney’s new animated feature is a box office success, but when it comes to merchandise, there’s no match for Elsa.

Walt Disney Co.’s Frozen, a fantasy tale of a snow queen coming to grips with her icy powers, was a stunning winner on store shelves. Years after the film’s release, children are still squealing for pretty dolls, kiddie karaoke machines, and tiny ice palaces. There are board games, Play-Doh sets, and upholstered chairs featuring its animated stars. You can even get behind the wheel of a $299 Frozen mini Jeep Wrangler. Really.

Of course, the media giant would love to replicate that success. In November, Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger said he expected the studio’s next animated release, Moana, to join its “pantheon of recent hits.” To an extent, it’s accomplished that goal, topping box office rankings the first two weekends and quickly grossing almost $200 million worldwide. Meanwhile, there are lots of Moana toys in stores—but they’re mostly figurines and adventure play sets. No jeeps to be found.

Moana

Moana

Source: Walt Disney Co.

“There’s quite a bit of product out there,” said Jim Silver, a toy industry veteran who runs the website Time to Play. “But it’s not a Frozen. Very few properties are Frozen.”

Box office success doesn’t always translate into merchandising success. Silver points to Finding Nemo, Pixar’s 2003 animated epic about a lost clownfish, which made almost $1 billion at theaters worldwide, more than double the haul from Cars three years later. He estimates Cars raked in about 25 times the merchandise sales Nemo did, despite the box office gap.

It’s simple: Kids want toy hot rods and racetracks more than stuffed fish. Seeing as it’s now holiday shopping season, parents may want to take note.

When it comes to competing with Frozen, Moana doesn’t seem to have the mighty drawing power of Elsa, Frozen’s heroine, with her hit songs, sister Anna’s love story, and the fun characters surrounding them both. Rather, Moana is more like Brave, an original story starring the fiery-haired Merida and her bow and arrow. Auli’i Cravalho’s Moana has a paddle and a canoe to spur her adventures while Maui, her demigod pal voiced by Dwayne Johnson, totes around his magical fish hook. None of those things are a match for, say, a glimmering ice castle dollhouse. No one really expected Moana to compete with Frozen

Frozen debuted in late 2013 and was immediately deemed a hit, though industry experts didn’t expect that, either. But no one—including Disney—had anticipated the mad rush for merchandise. Of course, Elsa turned out to be hugely popular. But so were Anna and her love interest Kristof. Even the sidekick snowman Olaf had a following. With a musical’s soundtrack anchored by Broadway star Idina Menzel’s Let It Go to keep the movie in the public’s consciousness (the official sequence has more than 500 million views on YouTube; a sing-along version has almost 1 billion), Frozen enjoyed uncanny staying power at theaters before shifting to televisions everywhere.

Overwhelmed, Disney struggled to keep up with demand for Frozen toys in 2014. In 2015, sales of Frozen merchandise jumped tenfold and kept momentum into the next year. Piper Jaffray analysts estimated earlier this year that Frozen has brought in a stunning $6 billion in merchandise sales. 

“Disney was as surprised as anybody by the heights that Frozen soared,” said Marty Brochstein, an executive at the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers Association. “When Frozen first came out, there wasn’t much merchandise out there. Disney and retailers spent the next year playing catch-up.”

Hasbro Inc., the Pawtucket, R.I.-based toymaker, is the biggest benefactor of Disney’s movie merchandising, riding the wave of Disney Princess and Frozen goods. It muscled the Disney Princess doll business away from rival Mattel Inc. in January, nabbing a chunk of the $5.5 billion enterprise Disney built around its heroines. Hasbro has the main toy license for Moana. Disney didn’t respond to a request for comment on its plans for Moana merchandise.

Beyond Moana, films coming out of Walt Disney Animation Studios have done mightily this year, with Finding Dory and Zootopia each topping $1 billion at the box office worldwide. Dory, the long-awaited sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo, stars Ellen DeGeneres’s lovable little blue fish, while Zootopia introduces plucky bunny Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin. But Dory is not Elsa. Nor is Officer Hopps. Moana, it seems, isn’t, either.

Perhaps the next super-sellable Disney character is just a new version of an old heroine. Disney’s live-action reboot of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson as Belle, will be in theaters next March, and it’s a proven brand. The toy industry can’t wait, said Silver.

“You have Belle and the Beast, you have the enchanted castle, the teapot, the candlestick, the clock, that yellow dress,” said Silver. “Everyone is so excited.”

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