Three weeks from now, Disney should be back to making box office money hand over fist with “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” but it’s always noteworthy when the top studio in Hollywood suffers a flop as big as “Nutcracker and the Four Realms.”
Filmed on a pricey $130 million budget, “Nutcracker” has posted a domestic opening this weekend of just $20 million and $58.5 million worldwide. With family films like “The Grinch,” “Fantastic Beasts” and the aforementioned “Ralph” headlining the rest of the November slate, all signs point to “Nutcracker” dropping down the charts very quickly in the weeks to come.
“Obviously, while we try to put all our films in the best position to succeed, some might not connect as much as we hope,” said Disney domestic distribution head Cathleen Taff.
It’s the worst opening for a wide Disney release since the $18 million opening of “The BFG” two years ago, and the third misfire for Disney this year alongside “A Wrinkle in Time,” which made $132 million against a $103 million budget, and “Solo,” which was the worst-performing “Star Wars” film ever with just $392 million grossed worldwide.
So why did “Nutcracker” fall apart like a poorly constructed toy? Here are our factors:
1.) Release date
There’s no guarantee “Nutcracker,” which is based on one of the most famous Christmas stories ever, would have performed better if it had been released closer to the 25th of December. But it’s possible that two days after Halloween was too early for moviegoers to get into a festive mood, even if holiday commercials are already popping up on TV.
Granted, Disney couldn’t exactly move “Nutcracker” into a better holiday spot. They already have “Mary Poppins Returns” slated for a Christmas release, and that film is a sequel to one of Disney’s most beloved films ever. Disney’s abundance of riches on their slate ironically worked against “Nutcracker,” pushing it into this early November slot.
2.) Name recognition
That said, a Christmas film released in November can still be successful. Disney had that sort of success with Tim Allen’s “Santa Clause” films, and next week, Universal is expected to bag a solid $55 million opening for Illumination’s adaptation of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
But unlike “The Grinch,” which comes from an animation studio that’s building Pixar levels of goodwill with audiences and is based on a beloved Dr. Seuss tale, “Nutcracker” is only loosely based on a 19th century folk tale and the Tchiakovsky ballet that it inspired. Neither of those have built-in interest among family audiences like the other films coming out this month, making it harder for “Nutcracker” to build pre-release buzz.
“Nutcracker” was directed by Lasse Hallstrom, but the film was sent back for a month’s worth of reshoots by the studio with “Captain America: The First Avenger” director Joe Johnston in charge. While casual moviegoers almost certainly didn’t pay attention to that behind-the-scenes move, many critics noted in their reviews that the reshoots created a sense that the film didn’t have a unified vision behind it.
“While it’s difficult to identify who directed what, it’s even more difficult to shake the feeling that Johnston was hired to sand off the edges, and make this thing more internationally palatable as a product,” wrote IndieWire’s David Ehrlich.
“The compromised result is suspended between a childlike sense of discovery and a corporate sense of duty — at no point does it feel like the story and the graphics are talking to each other, or even in the same language.”
Many critics made similar complaints about the lack of substance behind the dark fantasy visuals, leading to the film’s 35 percent Rotten Tomatoes score. Without strong reviews, “Nutcracker” lost another means by which to ignite audience interest, leading to this weekend’s muted results.
It would be demeaning to ballet dancers to say that no one cares about ballet. Certainly, the film’s dance sequences and the performance by the American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland were among the few bright spots critics praised for “Nutcracker.” But was a heavily modified take on one of the most famous ballets ever composed really going to build enough interest to support a $130 million film?
It doesn’t seem like Disney thought so. At D23 last year, the studio did lean heavily on the ballet for the film’s presentation, including a live ballet performance alongside the debut of the first trailer. But the crowd that had crammed into the Anaheim Convention Center responded with little more than mild cheers and polite applause, compared to the roars of excitement for “Avengers: Infinity War” and even the excitement for “A Wrinkle in Time,” even if the cheers for that film were just for the appearance of stars Chris Pine and Oprah Winfrey.
After that D23 presentation, there was very little of the film’s ballet sequences in the film’s marketing, leaning more instead on the “Alice in Wonderland”-esque visuals and Morgan Freeman’s stately, mysterious narration. As seen this weekend, neither those nor the art of dance were enough to draw a crowd beyond a relatively small, female-majority audience, as Disney will now turn to “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Mary Poppins” to end 2018 on a high note.