Disney is hardly ailing at the box office, but when it comes to the kind of family-friendly fare that doesn’t demand a deep franchise to back it up — the kind of features the studio used to excel at creating and selling — the Mouse House has endured a relatively modest 2018. This year alone, the company has pulled in more than $2.5 billion in domestic ticket sales alone, thanks to massive blockbusters like “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Incredibles 2,” knocking down all sorts of records in the process (from top MCU earner to biggest Pixar film ever, it’s been a huge year for Disney fans who have a thing for box-office trivia). When it comes to its other, “original” properties, the picture is different.
This year, Disney has debuted two films that fit into family-friendly, non-franchise perimeters: Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time” and Marc Forster’s “Christopher Robin,” which opened this past weekend. While both films are inspired by sprawling literary series (DuVernay’s feature is based on the first book in Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved children’s series, while Forster’s feature pulls from a wealth of material and characters created by A.A. Milne), they are both functional as standalone films (and were perhaps even imagined as franchise-starters at one point in time).
Both films also underperformed at the box office, with “Wrinkle” making just $132 million in worldwide ticket sales (against a reported total budget of $250 million) and “Christopher Robin” fizzling out in its first weekend after making less than $30 million worldwide against a reported $75 million budget. One possible problem: These films are just too scary for kids, and marketing made that clear enough that families didn’t want to risk a Disney film would traumatizing their youngsters. And they just might have.
Both films are rated PG — “Christopher Robin” for “some action” and “Wrinkle” for “thematic elements and some peril” — and while that sounds gentle enough for plenty of viewers, those designations don’t precisely contextualize how dark each film gets. It’s understandable that DuVernay’s film would hedge to more adult themes, as L’Engle’s books tend to be rated to the 9+ crowd and have always grappled with darker storylines (in “Wrinkle,” that includes traveling to a terrifying other world literally ruled by an evil brain force — it’s hard to put that into G-rated terms), and the choice to market the film as a must-see for the tween set certainly seemed canny at the time.
Yet the film, which could have been a crossover hit for the entire family, was hobbled by poor CGI that became increasingly obvious as more and more trailers were released. That CGI attempted to bring to life fantastical beings that ran the nightmarish gamut, from Reese Witherspoon’s character transforming into a giant flying cabbage leaf to a ragged Chris Pine trapped in a pitch-black netherworld. Add in a PG rating, and it’s no wonder some families might have decided to avoid a film that looked too harsh for the little ones, even if it does come with a positive message about being yourself (good for all ages!).
When it comes to “Christopher Robin,” however, the heart-wrenching gloom of the film’s middle act was mostly obscured by early marketing, which leaned into the lighter side of the film. The film’s first trailer didn’t shy away from introducing Christopher Robin’s (Ewan McGregor) best childhood pal, stuffed-bear-come-to-life Winnie the Pooh, and the charm of seeing the iconic bear brought to such loving life was overwhelming for fans of the delightful ursine. As Forster himself explained to IndieWire in March, “I just said, ‘I need a positive film and I need a hug from a bear. That would make me feel much better,'” adding that he hoped audiences “will embrace the film, and that they will feel that we honored Pooh and celebrated Pooh, and feel delighted and inspired by it. Hopefully their heart is tickled by it.”
Subsequent trailers, however, leaned more into the more adult themes of the film, and the unavoidable center of its plot: an adult man having a midlife crisis and forgetting the darling friends of hits youth. Not exactly the kind of movie children would clamber to see.
While the film’s last act is filled with the kind of giddy, sweet fun audiences expect to see from a feature about the happy inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood (and those scenes are now the ones being played up in trailers and commercials), the second act maroons both adult Christopher and a shell-shocked Pooh in a dark, dank, and just plain sad forest. Pooh is eager to find the pair’s other friends — and, for a while there, it’s hard to shake the worry that they won’t be able to do that — but Christopher remains concerned about getting back to his “adult” life and all his “adult” concerns. That’s the crux of the film’s drama, but Forster’s film drags it on and on, resulting in a surprisingly downbeat narrative that seems sure to upset more than a few of its youngest moviegoers. It ends happily (and brightly!), but that middle act wounds. It might even have scarred.
In 2016, Disney launched their live-action “Pete’s Dragon” remake, which is the most obvious corollary to their “Christopher Robin,” a slightly more adult take on a beloved fairy tale that didn’t require too much knowledge of the original story for audiences to enjoy it. That film also endured a slow start at the box office, opening in third place behind “Suicide Squad” and “Sausage Party,” though it eventually recovered and went on to make nearly $150 million at the global box office. Like Forster’s film, David Lowery’s take on the boy-and-his-dragon mythos includes some tough stuff — what’s a Disney movie without a tragic orphaning? — but couched it in the kind of genuine wonder that is mostly missing from “Christopher Robin,” lovingly told from a child’s perspective and spirit.
Of course, Disney has enjoyed some very big successes from other live-action takes on beloved material in recent years, even those that come with their own PG rating, including their smash hits “Alice in Wonderland,” “Cinderella,” and “Beauty and the Beast,” yet 2018 hasn’t spawned a hit even close to that level. Instead, the returns so far have mirrored one of the studio’s most notorious PG flops: Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland,” which made nearly $210 million back in 2015 while still losing an estimated $100 million for the studio. That film, also an original feature aimed at families, built out its own mythology and imagined a brave new world that could have spawned its own franchise. It flamed out, saddled with a complicated and morose narrative that didn’t appeal to many moviegoers, including kids.
Still, Disney hasn’t abandoned its attempts at regaining a foothold in the PG-rated arena, and this holiday season will see the release of two big Disney tentpoles of the family-friendly variety, including the long-delayed “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” and the much-anticipated “Mary Poppins Returns.” While the latest “Nutcracker” film has yet to lock down its own rating, the new Poppins feature has already snagged a PG, for “mild thematic elements and brief action.”