For the past decade, Disney has made it a point to release a new animated movie around the Thanksgiving holidays. Given that Thanksgiving serves as the kick-off for the holiday season and is a time when families are often together, Disney is almost guaranteed to make a killing at the box office with an animated film. Almost. While this is the same time period that hits like Frozen and Moana came out, this year’s offering, Strange World, wound up being killed at the box office. With a budget of anywhere between $135 million and $180 million, the film only grossed $42 million worldwide in its first two weeks. It’s a complete box office bomb and stands to lose Disney over $100 million.
This is a strange turn of events for a studio that has been seen as the gold standard for animation for nearly a century. But the failure of Strange World doesn’t just seem like a one-and-done failure. It’s coming across as an omen for things to come. Disney is in a situation now where it needs to change how it makes animated films and what it wants audiences to get out of the experience, because as it is right now, its animation division is in trouble. Disney’s animated library needs a massive overhaul, or else future films will end up like Strange World and leave audiences unimpressed and Disney with more financial failures.
While it would be easy to just point at Strange World and say that it failed because it’s a bad movie, that isn’t the case. It’s a fine movie. The animation is nice, the characters are decent, and the adventure is exciting when it needs to be. It’s just unremarkable. It doesn’t do anything new or exciting, but being conventional has never stopped a movie from making a killing at the box office. Hell, you could make the argument that Avatar tells one of the most conventional and safe stories in existence, but it’s the highest-grossing movie of all time. Sometimes, a basic story works for audiences, especially if the film is aimed at children who have never seen a story like that before.
The failure of Strange World is complex, but I think that one of the main reasons the movie failed is because Disney has conditioned audiences to stop going to theaters. Since the pandemic, Disney has been pushing hard for audiences to watch its movies on Disney+.
We’ve seen this from Disney’s “Premier Access” program, where audiences had to pay $30 to access a movie for three months until it became free to everyone. Then Disney released three Pixar movies (Soul, Luca, and Turning Red) for free on Disney+ exclusively. Plus, Disney has weakened the theatrical window to the point where it can premiere its movies 45 days after the theatrical release on its streaming service. When you combine all of that together, Disney has repeatedly sent out the message that Disney+ is where you should watch its movies, not in theaters.
Last year’s Encanto is emblematic of that business mindset. The film had a modest theatrical haul, making a little north of $250 million, which is fine but pales in comparison to every other Disney movie released during that same time period. For perspective, the last movie to make less than Encanto’s box office during the same holiday period was 2002’s Treasure Planet. Yet Encanto blew up in the public consciousness in January thanks to its Disney+ release and the music from the film becoming all the rage on social media. No one talked about it when it came out in November, only after its streaming release.
Disney shouldn’t act surprised when its animated features, like Strange World or Lightyear, underperform at the box office because of this. But even if Disney learns from this pandemic mistake, that isn’t going to change the direction of how its animated movies tell their stories.
There’s a scene in Strange World that really brings home the core problem of modern-day Disney storytelling. In the scene, the main characters are all sitting around and playing what I can only describe as a sci-fi version of Settlers of Catan. The son, Ethan, is trying to teach his dad, Searcher, and grandpa, Jaeger, how to play it. The two of them don’t fully understand it, trying to choose violent answers to encounters with creatures and enemies. Ethan tries to tell them that it’s a game about coexistence and that there’s no need for any conflict or fighting. Searcher and Jaeger laugh this off, saying that it’s not entertaining unless there’s a villain or monster to fight. Ethan then walks off frustrated, yelling at the two of them for being the problem because they don’t want to listen to him about anything.
And that there is the problem. All of Disney’s conflicts now are interpersonal dramas. The problem with Strange World is that the film is nothing but character drama with the main plot; the world’s energy source dying becomes second to healing the family’s fractured dynamic. It’s a message that Disney has been pushing since 2013’s Frozen where the conflict was less about saving the kingdom from an eternal winter and more about mending the bond between sisters Elsa and Anna. That was a pretty great message in the film and is one of the main reasons why Frozen resonates to this day, because the external and internal conflicts matched. It’s a shame that virtually every Disney movie afterwards has attempted this exact same message.
Frozen II, Encanto, Coco, Onward, Turning Red: These are all movies that have the same overarching theme but just change the set dressing and aesthetics. They’re all films that have weak inciting incidents and focus on internal character drama without a clear and defining antagonist. There are way more movies that fit this dynamic if you want to include movies that don’t center on family as one of their main themes. Then we can add virtually every Disney movie from the past decade to this list. At first, Frozen was fresh because it bucked tradition and gave a new interpretation of a classic Disney story. Now that story has been done to death, and audiences just aren’t feeling it anymore.
Strange World is yet another example to add to the list. It makes fun of stories that have antagonists, framing them as being simple and basic and lacking complexity. Ironically, Strange World ends up lacking depth because of its repetitive story. Without a clear antagonist, we’re just left with characters and drama that have become rote and predictable. I can’t say that the film would have been better with a dramatic villain ripped straight from the Disney Renaissance, but it at least would have made it more entertaining. It also just makes the film look silly with Ethan’s comments giving a metatextual impression that villains somehow make a story weaker and less compelling, portraying his father and grandfather as being in the wrong.
It’s no coincidence that the rise of this introspective narrative style parallels Disney’s efforts to downplay its villains. Even if a movie is bland and dull, a compelling antagonist can elevate a story as long as they are entertaining. Having a villain doesn’t make a story weaker or lessen any of the themes the narrative is trying to convey. They’re a tool that has been shelved for years because of a lack of understanding of how they function, and Disney needs to take them out again. It would be seen as a breath of fresh air and a return to form for Disney, and I can tell you that audiences would be more eager to engage with this hypothetical villain if only because it’s something different.
So no, Strange World didn’t fail because of the quality of the movie or something stupid like the LGBT backlash surrounding the film. It failed because Disney set it up to fail. It was released in an environment where Disney has trained audiences to ignore new theatrical releases and wait for the digital release of movies that have been regurgitating the same message for nearly a decade. Disney needs to figure out how to make its audiences care again about going to a theater or engaging with its story, because what’s here just isn’t working. Disney isn’t going away anytime soon, but it may not be relevant in the near future with so many other studios delivering compelling animated feature films that audiences are willing to go out and see.