The opposite challenge is confronting Disney, which releases "Ratatouille
" in June. The premise is pure Pixar: A rat, Remy, lives with his family and friends underneath a restaurant in Paris and dreams of becoming an elite chef. The toy prospects would appear to be iffy, especially in the wake of DreamWorks Animation's estimated $100 million-plus write-down on "Flushed Away," also a charming-rodent pic.
"When we first heard that the next summer animated film was about rats, we all said, 'Uhh ...'" Disney's Dunne recalls. "Would a child who hasn't seen the film want to grab a plush toy that's a rat instead of Winnie the Pooh? Probably not. But now that I've seen 15 minutes of the film, I think it's really wonderful and I feel confident trying to persuade retailers to commit."
Among the "Ratatouille" items at the Mattel showroom on West 35th Street was Little Chef Remy, based on the main character. Unlike inert stuffed dolls of yore, Little Chef Remy is animatronic. He wiggles his whiskers, swivels his hips and cries out phrases like "smells delicious!" when he senses something under his nose.
Disney is coming off a major success with "Cars," which has passed $900 million in merchandise sales since the film's release last summer (double its worldwide theatrical cume). It failed to register in toyland with "Chronicles of Narnia," however, with ho-hum toy sales that lagged behind its hefty global B.O. haul.
That schism between B.O. and merchandise has always existed -- the Indiana Jones films famously stiffed in toy stores, for example -- but it's becoming more frequent, veterans say.
Pixar properties initially bedeviled Disney toy mavens. The animation house was so untested in 1995 that "Toy Story," itself a sort of extended toy-ad-with-narrative, had no extra support from the major toymakers whose wares were featured in the film. And "Finding Nemo," Dunne recalls, was slow to catch fire in stores despite a $330 million domestic take. "The knock was, no one would want to take a fish to bed like you do with a teddy bear," Dunne says. She plans to remind anyone who missed out on "Nemo" to bet on the upside of "Ratatouille."
Shepherding toy lines requires that kind of long-run vision, a rare commodity on studio lots obsessed with the hot script du jour or the young actor whose horror movie just racked up 10 million DVD units.
"We're the ones stabbing into the dark, when there's just a rough treatment or even a pitch to go from," says Elie Dekel, exec VP of licensing and merchandising at Fox. "We have to anticipate what's coming. On some animated films, new characters emerge or get edited out or ones you thought would talk get their voices taken away."