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For Disney Animation, Thanksgiving Weekend Is Now a Cry for Help

Among studio head Bob Iger's many challenges: "Strange World" is headed for an opening far below average for a Disney animated film.

Strange World Disney

“Strange World”

Courtesy of Disney

This Thanksgiving continues Disney’s multiplex tradition of a major animated release with today’s release of “Strange World,” which joins the ranks of “Encanto,” “Frozen” and its sequel, “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” “Coco,” and “Moana.” Unlike those titles, “Strange World” probably won’t debut at #1.

Granted, the #1 money will go to the same place with Disney’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” Each film is expected to take in less than $50 million for the five-day weekend, with “Wakanda Forever” having the edge.

Returning CEO Bob Iger has (plenty of) other problems to occupy his attention, but a new animated adventure that grosses perhaps $30 million over five days is a cry for help. Adjusting five-day grosses to current ticket prices, every Disney-released Thanksgiving animated release (including Pixar) grossed at least triple the estimates for “Strange World.” Three years ago, “Frozen II” took in $125 million on its way to $477 million domestic (unadjusted) and #4 best gross among 2019 releases.

Animation, of course, is where Disney came from and until very recently animated films remained a key pillar of its slate. Four of the all-time biggest grossing films, and 14 of the top 100, come from the Disney animation studios (led by “The Lion King,” with more than $1 billion adjusted). Animation merchandising also generated revenue well beyond theaters.

ONWARD - Visual development art by Kyle Macnaughton,. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

“Onward”

Disney/Pixar

The last Disney animated release under Iger was “Frozen II.” The first under Bob Chapek, Pixar’s “Onward,” had terrible luck: It was released on the first weekend in March 2020, just before theaters shut down, and opened to $39 million.

With a  production budget cited as anywhere between $135 million-$180 million (before marketing), “Strange World” is is not a modest investment. Industry sources suggest — at best — it might reach $150 million domestic. Less is likely; it has a 66 Metacritic score, at the lowest end of the “generally favorable” scale.

“Strange World” is an original story about a dysfunctional family of explorers who come together as they interact with unusual life forms on a distant planet. It’s a more sci-fi than most Disney offerings and lacks some of the human drama and the musical elements that many equate with the studio’s animated best.

Other studios create successful animation franchises (Universal’s “Despicable Me” and “Minions,” Sony with “Hotel Transylvania,” Warner Bros. with  the “LEGO” films, and Paramount with “Sonic the Hedgehog”), but — until recently — no one could touch Disney.

It owned the top slot for animated films all the way through 2019, but this year, “Minions: The Rise of Gru” will be #1 with $369 million — three times the gross of Pixar’s “Lightyear.” Universal also led in 2021 with $162 million, when theaters were deeper in recovery. Disney’s best was “Encanto,” released at Thanksgiving, with $96 million.

Sing 2 Planet Joy

“Sing 2”

Universal

The easy excuse is Chapek devalued Disney animation by releasing “Turning Red,” “Soul,” and “Luca” as Disney+ exclusives, but other factors persist beyond the possibility that consumers now equate Disney animation with home viewing. There’s also broader availability of other titles; “Sing 2” began its now nearly year-long heavy viewing on different home platforms after its second weekend in theaters.

Is a fresh animated title without a franchise title less compelling? What about those that lean into drama? Pixar films often lean into the laughs, thought not to the extent of “Minions” and other competitors. Also worth considering is content backlash. “Strange World” includes a gay friendship and Disney won’t release the film in Muslim countries. (France won’t play it because it requires lengthy theatrical windows before streaming; it will premiere there on Disney+.)

Some answers will come from its initial gross and then longer play. In his quest to revamp Disney, expect Iger to closely examine this weekend’s results and seek major improvement.

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