How ‘Strange World’ Is Set to Lose $100 Million-Plus as Disney’s Biggest Animated Bomb in 20 Years

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Two decades ago, another Disney sci-fi animated film, “Treasure Planet” hit theaters on Thanksgiving and immediately crashed

strange world
"Strange World" (Disney)

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Disney Animation has not had a good year. The studio has followed disappointing box office for last summer’s “Toy Story” spinoff “Lightyear” with the big-screen bomb “Strange World” that is projected by analysts to cost the studio $100 million-plus as one of Disney’s biggest failures ever.

The flop is so big that it is on par with another historic bomb that the studio released on Thanksgiving weekend two decades ago: “Treasure Planet,” the most prominent in a string of theatrical busts that helped lead to the ouster of then-CEO Michael Eisner and paved the way for the rise of Bob Iger, who is now returning to take charge of Disney after the brief, tumultuous reign of Bob Chapek. Unlike Eisner and “Treasure Planet,” “Strange World” doesn’t entirely fall on Chapek’s shoulders. (The new film had been in development under Disney Animation head Jennifer Lee prior to Chapek’s rise as CEO.)

As of Sunday, “Strange World” is estimated to earn a five-day opening of just $18.6 million against a reported $135 million budget, less than half the $40.5 million that was earned on this holiday weekend last year by “Encanto,” a film that the studio expected to struggle given the reluctance of family audiences to return to theaters and its imminent release on Disney+ (where it became a cultural hit).

Back in 2002, “Treasure Planet” arrived in theaters as the most expensive traditionally animated film at the time with a $140 million budget, or approximately $230 million in today’s dollars. Released at a time when post-Disney Renaissance films like “Mulan,” “Tarzan” and “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” were making progressively less money in theaters, the sci-fi adventure “Treasure Planet” opened to a paltry $16.6 million over Thanksgiving weekend, before topping out at $109.5 million worldwide — and costing Disney $74 million from its theatrical release.

“Strange World” will do even worse. While “Treasure Planet” won over the audience that did see it with an A- on CinemaScore, “Strange World” has earned a B, the first Disney animated film to fail to earn an A or A-.

Grossing less than $10 million from 43 international markets, “Strange World” is tanking even harder overseas and at this point would be fortunate to hit $75 million worldwide given the imminent arrival of Disney’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” and Universal’s “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” in mid-December.

There are some broad parallels between “Treasure Planet” and “Strange World,” mainly that both are sci-fi tributes to literary works made decades ago. “Treasure Planet” was a space-faring take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” while “Strange World” is a broader ode to the pulpy adventure comic books of the 1930s like “Doc Savage.”

Both films therefore faced marketing challenges, exacerbated by a vocal cast that lacked A-list name recognition. A 21-year-old Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emma Thompson highlighted the cast of “Treasure Planet,” while Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid lead the cast of “Strange World.”

The new film also lacks a photogenic heroine like “Frozen” or “Moana” or fantastical characters like “Wreck-It Ralph” or “Zootopia.” With the exception of the amoeba-like Splat, all the film’s characters are humans, with the posters featuring protagonist Searcher Clade (Gyllenhaal) with his boisterous father (Quaid) and adventure-loving grandson (Jaboukie Young-White).

Disney tried to make up for that by marketing both films around the visuals, but that wasn’t enough. While “Treasure Planet” eventually developed a cult following among Disney devotees for its steampunk-esque images of 18th-century schooners flying through space, mainstream audiences at the time dismissed the aesthetic as too bizarre. At the time, family audiences were gravitating to CG-animated films like DreamWorks Animation’s “Shrek” that shaped the tastes of moviegoers in the 2000s by thumbing its nose at the heart-on-sleeve earnestness that defined many Disney films, while Disney’s biggest box office hits came from the rising Pixar with films like “Toy Story 2” and “Monsters Inc.”

Similarly, the colorful setting of “Strange World” wasn’t enough to win over audiences, especially as it competed with Disney’s two blockbuster sequels on the release slate. Both “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” also got bigger marketing campaigns, and appear to have won over audiences with more striking and better developed worlds already familiar to audiences.

The moviegoers polled by CinemaScore underscored why “Strange World” is flopping. While audiences under 25 — namely kids — gave the film an A-, parents and general audience adults lowered the average to a B.

The film’s plot, built around themes of climate change and generational conflicts between parent and child, failed to resonate with grownups at a time when most films that explore real-world issues are getting ignored in favor of films with pure escapism. And yes, it is possible that an LGBT subplot involving 16-year-old Ethan Clade’s crush on another teenage boy drew the ire of some conservative parents.

It’s also possible that general audiences may be outgrowing their interest in feature-length cartoons that aren’t sequels to established hits. The last original animated film to gross over $500 million worldwide was Pixar’s “Coco,” and that came out five years ago.

Since then, Disney and Pixar have enjoyed billion-dollar results with “Incredibles 2,” “Toy Story 4” and “Frozen II,” but the original offerings that they have put out over the past two years have either had their results skewed by the pandemic and the studio’s streaming-first release strategies or outright bombed.

Meanwhile, the most successful post-shutdown animated films have been part of franchises like Universal/Illumination’s “Sing 2” and “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” and the 2023 titles expected to be the biggest animated hits are more of the same: Illumination’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” Sony’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” and DreamWorks Animation’s “Trolls 3.” “Encanto” may have boosted Disney+ subscriber numbers, but theaters are still searching for that first, post-COVID original animated film that convinces families and general audiences alike to buy tickets.

That’s a worrying trend for Disney, whose animated slate next year consists of two more original projects — Pixar’s “Elemental” and Disney Animation’s “Wish.” Bob Iger, Jennifer Lee and the rest of the Disney brain trust will have to find a way to get audiences to embrace their studios’ fresh new ideas again, not just on streaming but at the movie theater as well.