One year ago, Walt Disney Animation suffered one of the biggest bombs in its 100-year history with “Strange World,” leading to the worst Thanksgiving weekend the box office had seen since 1999. Now the studio is back with its 100th anniversary film “Wish,” and both Disney and cinemas really need it to be a holiday season hit, with projections showing it will gross around $50 million from 3,700+ theaters over the five-day holiday weekend.
Disney’s rocky centennial year at the box office has been well documented. On the bright side, 20th Century’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” got the year off to a great start, earning $2.32 billion globally, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.” was one of the biggest hits of the year with $845.5 million, and “Elemental” recovered from the worst opening in Pixar history to have a decent theatrical run thanks to audience acclaim.
But films like “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” and especially the recently released “The Marvels” have become high-profile misfires that have left CEO Bob Iger and his team figuring out how to repair franchise problems on multiple fronts.
“Strange World” was another big bust. A poor marketing campaign failed to drum up moviegoer interest last winter in between Disney’s much more successful sequels to “Black Panther” and “Avatar.” And audiences weren’t enthused by the film’s sci-fi adventure story, which eschewed the photogenic heroines and musical numbers that have been used to sell Disney hits like “Frozen,” “Moana” and “Encanto.”
On paper, “Wish” is a direct tribute to the tried-and-true formula that has made Disney a household name over the past 100 years. A “Disney Princess” is once again at the center with Ariana DeBose’s Asha. The family conflicts of films like “Strange World” and “Encanto” have been replaced with a more traditional animated villain in the form of Chris Pine’s King Magnifico. Alan Tudyk plays the comic relief talking animal sidekick Valentino. The film’s tight 92-minute runtime is stuffed with songs that Disney hopes will be embraced by families like “Let It Go“ and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.”
However, that formula hasn’t won over critics, as reviews for “Wish” have been mixed with a 49% Rotten Tomatoes score. While reviewers have praised DeBose and Pine’s voice acting as well as the film’s songs and animation style, some have criticized the story as uninspiring with Asha not standing out as a protagonist compared to the likes of Belle, Ariel, Anna and Elsa.
While that will be a hurdle for “Wish” to overcome, it’s not an insurmountable one. Families have never paid much mind to critics when it comes to animated films, as titles like “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” and “Trolls Band Together” have gotten high marks from parents and kids recently.
“Wish” may have trouble finding general audience appeal against competition like “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes,” which grossed a solid $5.3 million on Monday. But Disney’s hope is that the film gets sustained buzz among parents and kids in the way that “Elemental” did this past summer, allowing the film to leg out through Christmas and into January.
While “Wish” won’t top the end-of-year charts like “Frozen II” did in 2019, reasonable comps will be “Elemental,” which grossed $154 million domestic and $495 million worldwide this summer, and “Moana,” which opened to $56.6 million on Thanksgiving weekend 2016 and grossed $248.7 million domestic and $643.3 million worldwide.
A theatrical run somewhere between those films should be doable for “Wish” if families embrace it, and it would be a decent result for Disney as it tries to get that key demo to get back in the habit of seeing its films in theaters, after pushing them to see movies like “Encanto” and “Turning Red” on streaming.
Perhaps more importantly, a strong performance by “Wish” would provide theaters with a much-higher baseline of audience turnout during a time when strike-related release delays and a lack of surefire “Black Panther”-level blockbusters on the holiday slate has left the season in a state of uncertainty.
For decades, Disney has staked out Thanksgiving weekend as a launch pad for its animated films. And during the peak of the studios’ box office dominance in the late 2010s, theaters leaned on their offerings to bring in hundreds of millions during the holiday period. From 2016-19, Thanksgiving Disney releases contributed over $1.1 billion to the domestic box office.
When “Strange World” bombed last year, theaters were left struggling through several more weeks of low audience turnout until “Avatar 2” and “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” brought them back at Christmastime. More variety in theaters will stop this season from getting that bad, including Sony/Apple’s “Napoleon,” which is expected to earn around $25 million over five days this weekend.
But it’s still up to “Wish” to do the heavy lifting — until Warner Bros. holiday titles like “Wonka” and “The Color Purple” arrive in the second half of December.
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