Disney’s “Strange World” bombed at the box office over Thanksgiving, leaving the studio to mop up oceans, mountains and terrains of red ink.
The animated feature debuted dramatically behind expectations with $11.9 million from 4,174 North American theaters over the weekend and $18.6 million over the five-day holiday frame. Before projections were revised downward, the movie was expected to earn $30 million to $40 million between Wednesday and Sunday — and even those figures would have been unspectacular to start.
Inaugural ticket sales for “Strange World” now register as one of Disney’s worst opening weekends in modern times, arriving ever-so-slightly ahead of its pandemic-era release “West Side Story” ($10.5 million) and significantly behind fellow family films like “Encanto” ($27.2 million over the traditional weekend and $40 million during the extended Thanksgiving holiday stretch) and “Lightyear” ($51 million).
“Normally this time of year, a Disney family film is the big draw,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior Comscore analyst. “It shows we’re still recovering and adapting to the constraints of the pandemic.”
Unless its business rebounds dramatically in the next few weeks (and that seems unlikely given the film’s moderate reviews, lackluster audience reception and minimal buzz), sources estimate that “Strange World” will lose at least $100 million in its theatrical run. Even with proper attention on Disney+ and home entertainment platforms, box office experts suggest it’ll be difficult to get the big-budget film into the black. Since “Strange World” cost $180 million to produce and tens of millions more in global marketing and distribution fees, the film needs to gross roughly $360 million to break even, sources say.
And keep in mind: those levels were unattainable for “Lightyear” (which ended its theatrical run with $226 million worldwide) and “Encanto” (which ended its theatrical run with $256 million worldwide), despite those films notching bigger opening weekends. Rival studios believe “Strange World” will be lucky to hit $45 million by the end of its domestic run. By comparison, “Encanto” earned $96 million in North America while “Lightyear” generated $118 million in the states.
“This is a weak opening by Disney animation standards,” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “At a cost of $180 million, plus marketing expenses, the film will finish in the red, even with good ancillary income.”
Overseas grosses may not provide much of a lifeline. “Strange World” was similarly jilted at the international box office with $9.2 million from 43 markets. Like most Hollywood films, it won’t play in China or Russia, two major international markets, due to geopolitical tensions. Beyond that, Disney opted to not submit “Strange World” to several smaller markets, including the entire Middle East, Malaysia and Indonesia, because the movie features a gay character. Films with LGBTQ references have been regularly targeted by censors in those territories and Disney wasn’t willing to cut out parts of the movie to comply with their guidelines.
Overall, it was a weak Thanksgiving holiday for Hollywood as every film that opened (including “Devotion”) or expanded nationwide (in the case of “The Fabelmans” and “Bones and All”) crumbled at the box office. Yet it wasn’t entirely dire for Disney. The studio’s Marvel adventure “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” towered over box office charts for the third weekend in a row, adding $64 million over the five-day stretch. So far, the superhero sequel has grossed $367 million in North America and a mighty $675 million globally.
“Strange World” continues a bleak streak for Disney’s animated offerings, which have long been considered the gold standard. Yet the studio, which bucked tradition by putting Pixar movies like “Soul” and “Luca” directly on Disney+ during the pandemic, hasn’t been able to properly reacquaint those audiences with theatrical releases. Some analysts believe the studio may have inadvertently conditioned families to watch new movies on its popular streaming service.
In any case, Disney has fumbled pandemic-era offerings like “Lightyear,” one of the few Pixar films to lose money in its theatrical run, as well as “Encanto,” which didn’t become a viral TikTok sensation until the musical fable landed on Disney+. It’s an especially important business for Disney because it fuels the company’s consumer productions business, in addition to streaming and theme parks.
It’s not only Disney that has struggled to succeed in the animation space in pandemic times. Even as COVID cases dwindle and normal life rebounds, families have remained frustratingly selective about what they’re willing to leave the house to see. As a result, “Minions: The Rise of Gru” and “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” — both of which hail from established franchises — have been just about the only kid-friendly films to resonate with audiences in the past year. That’s a problem because movies aimed at youngsters, particularly of the animated variety, used to account for a significant chunk of the year’s overall box office returns. “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” a sequel in the “Shrek” universe, will be the medium’s next big test. Universal and DreamWorks open the film on Dec. 21.
Don Hall directed “Strange World,” which features a voice cast of Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Jaboukie Young-White and Gabrielle Union as a family of legendary explorers who embark on a treacherous journey to save a mysterious land from losing its vital energy source.
Audiences were, perhaps surprisingly, harsher on the film compared to critics. “Strange World” landed a tepid “B” CinemaScore from exit polls, as well as a 73% average from reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes. Variety’s chief critic Peter Debruge praised the movie’s visuals, writing that “it’s the characters as much as the environment that make this vibrant, ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’-style adventure movie colorful and diverse in all the best ways.” But he wasn’t sold on the adventure in question, adding that “great as the people and places they explore may be, however, the relatively unimaginative story consigns this gorgeous toon to second-tier status … instead of cracking the pantheon of Disney classics.”