With apologies to Mel Brooks, while it may be good to be the king, it's great to be the princess. Particularly if you're Sofia the First, Disney's little girl princess.
Take for example "Princesses to the Rescue", the episode of this acclaimed animated series which ran this past Friday on Disney Junior. Partially because this particular Sofia the First featured a special appearance by Disney Princess Mulan, it wound up being last week's No. 1 TV telecast in Girls 2-5 and was the No. 1 preschool TV telecast for the week in Total Viewers (2.5 million) and Women 18-49.
And this past weekend, hundreds of kids and their parents turned out in Los Angeles' Pasadena neighborhood to get some face time with Sofia. The walk-around version of Disney's little girl princess was making appearances at the final stops for Disney Junior's "Pirate and Princess: Power of Doing Good" tour. Which was this multi-city, pro-social touring event that the Mouse put together with the help of ASPCA, Youth Service America (YSA), National Wildlife Federation and First Book which used the Sofia the First and Jake and the Never Land Pirates character to help teach children ages 2-7 the value of caring for nature and animals.
Sofia also stars in the wildly popular "Disney Junior Live on Stage!" attraction at Disney California Adventure Park at the Disneyland Resort and Disney's Hollywood Studios at the Walt Disney World in Florida. Not to mention the Disney Junior Live On Tour! Pirate and Princess Adventure arena show which is in the middle of a 103-city North American tour. Then when you factor in the New York Times best-selling "Sofia the First" storybook, the "Sofia the First: Story Theater" app (which has been ranked as the No. 1 kids iPad app on the App Store in 46 countries worldwide), the wide variety of "Sofia the First" products that are now available for purchase in stores ... It's pretty clear that Disney's little girl princess is now master of all she surveys.
Which kind of blows Craig Gerber's mind. Given that he's the guy who five years ago was tasked by Nancy Kanter (i.e., the executive vice president of Original Programming and general manager at Disney Junior Worldwide) to come up with a concept for a new animated TV series that would be at aimed at 2 to 7-year-olds which would then be centered around a princess.
"It's all been incredibly surreal. Going back to the genesis of all this, back when it was just an idea, a show that would be fun to watch with my own son Miles to now going out this past Halloween and seeing girls trick-or-treating in Sofia costumes," Craig recalled during a recent phone call. "It's nothing that I could have imagined. It'll sound corny, but it's sort of been like living in a Disney movie. It really is."
"I mean, you work hard in the entertainment business and you struggle for years. And then you have that one show and as you start you think 'Well, I don't know if this is even going to work.' And the next thing you know, you go to the park and there are Sofia birthday parties. It's really a dream come true," Gerber continued. "And I know that that might sound trite. But hey I work at Disney. So I think that I might be able to get away with it."
Now you'd think given that Sofia the First has become this huge success for The Walt Disney Company that an edict would then immediately come down from on high to "Don't Fix What Ain't Broke." But according to what Craig told me, that really hasn't been the case with this Disney Junior series.
"Everyone involved with the production of Sofia the First has tried to make this show better as we've gone along. Which is why they went in and tweaked the animation process that they were using. And as a result the end result has gotten better. The character animation has steadily improved. They started doing a new process that I think has greatly improved the look and feel of the show from a lighting and production design point-of-view," Gerber explained. "We did make those adjustments as we moved from Season One to Season Two. And all the credit for that goes to Jamie Mitchell, the executive producer and director of Sofia the First and his animation team."
And given that Craig and Co. are wrapping up production of Season 2 of Sofia the First and well into writing and drawing Season 3 of this Disney Junior show, would Gerber be willing to talk about what the future may hold for the residents of Enchancia?
"One of the things we decided to do with this Disney Junior show is very subtly grow our characters. As we get through Season 2, you'll see that Sofia is in a slightly different place than she was at the start of Season 2," Craig stated. "And Amber, Sofia's step-sister, is constantly learning things. Our big episode for this November with Rapunzel will show Sofia and Amber's relationship growing and deepening because of mistakes that Amber makes. And after that episode, these two will be closer as a direct result of that adventure. The stories that we tell after the Rapunzel episode will be different than the ones before. Not necessarily in a major way. In a subtle, character-driven way."
"That said, what's exciting about this Disney Junior show as we go into a Season 3 is that we're going to push Sofia's character into new territory. Not in terms of changing anything about her. But we're going to tell some stories that I think will be very exciting and a little different from the stories that have come before," Gerber continued.
And speaking of recent Disney princesses making special appearances in Enchancia, will the characters from Frozen be showing up on Sofia anytime soon? Sadly no.
"There are no current plans to incorporate Anna or Elsa into our show," Craig admitted. "I mean, kids love Frozen. My own boys have watched that movie so many times already that I could sing the songs on-key for you. So there's been a lot of interest in this idea. But as we like to say around the office, one princess at a time."
"I mean, you have to understand that when we bring one of the Disney Princesses in to appear on Sofia the First, like we're going to do with Tiana later on this year we don't do this sort of thing casually. We spend a lot of time making sure that we get the character design just right," Gerber continued. "We want to make sure that these Disney Princesses all look and sound the way they're supposed to. Which is why we brought Ming-Na Wen in to voice Mulan for 'Princesses to the Rescue.' "
But as much as Craig has enjoyed working with Disney Legends Anika Noni Rose and Jodi Benson to bring classic Disney princesses to life To hear Gerber talk, one of the great joys of working on "Sofia the First" is bringing in people like Eric Stonestreet and Megan Mullally to come voice characters that were created specifically for this Disney Junior show.
"That's honestly one of the fun perks of executive-producing and writing a show like this. Working with people like Eric and Megan who are excited to be on the show and give it their all whenever they come in. It's been a blast," Craig said. " Eric Stonestreet has done such a terrific job with Minimus that we wound up writing his timid flying horse character into more and more shows. And Eric keeps coming back. He really enjoys the process. Eric is a very, very talented improv actor and he brings a lot to the role & the show."
But as fun as those sorts of recording sessions for Sofia can be, Gerber does admit that keeping this super-popular Disney Junior show going can sometimes be something of a challenge.
"Because Sofia has been so successful, it's been nonstop. And it is hard work. It's hard work that we can see has paid off, but ... You know, we set a very high standard for ourselves and this show, and maintaining that standard has taken a lot of effort and time. Especially when you find yourselves 60 episodes in and you're like 'Wow, I can't believe that we've done this many stories.' But what really helps here is that I work with a lot of very talented people who can continually come up with ideas for 'Sofia' that still seem new and fresh. And with Season 3, we now have an opportunity to bring back some characters that have proven popular before. Not to mention bringing in additional Disney Princesses for special appearances," Craig concluded.
Which brings us back to Anna and Elsa. Will the princesses from Frozen eventually make an appearance in Enchancia? Given that Sofia the First's reign won't be ending anytime soon ... Well, I guess that we'll just have to wait and see what comes with Season 4 of this Emmy Award-winning Disney Junior Series.