Ariana DeBose stars as Asha in Disney’s new animated film “Wish.”
Disney is wishing on a shooting star this week, hoping that its celebratory 100th anniversary film “Wish” will mark a turning point for its beleaguered animation division and jumpstart the Thanksgiving box office.
The House of Mouse posted its biggest year ever theatrically in 2019 — with a whopping seven films surpassing $1 billion in global ticket sales — but has yet to recapture that magic even after relaxed Covid restrictions brought moviegoers back to cinemas.
Its Marvel Cinematic Universe films have been hit-or-miss with audiences, with “The Marvels” most recently opening to an all-time franchise low. But Disney’s animation arm, which has ruled the box office for decades, has had more rotten eggs than golden ones in the last three years.
Much of Disney’s troubles have stemmed from executive decisions to pad its fledgling streaming service Disney+ with content, stretching its creative teams thin, and sending theatrical movies during the pandemic straight to digital.
This has been particularly apparent with Disney’s animated features, both from its Walt Disney Animation studio and from Pixar. Parents, confused about when and where animated films from the studio were being released, didn’t show up to theaters. And the films that were released weren’t all well-received by critics or audiences.
This has had a direct impact on the key Thanksgiving holiday, which Disney has long dominated at the box office.
Disney declined to comment for this story.
Feast or famine
The week of Thanksgiving is typically a robust time at the box office, a tradition for many families who gather during extended time off from school and work.
In the last decade, not counting 2020, 2021 and 2022, the five-day Thanksgiving spread — from the Wednesday before Thanksgiving through Sunday — has resulted in more than $250 million in ticket sales each year.
Many of those weekends were fueled by Disney animation hits as well as Lionsgate’s Hunger Games films.
However, in the wake of the Covid pandemic, the box office has struggled to regain its foothold on the Thanksgiving holiday.
“Thanksgiving as a holiday moviegoing corridor has diminished in its revenue-generating horsepower in the post-Pandemic era and this means that at least for now, the odds are against any film becoming a massive breakout hit over the five-day frame,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “Thanksgiving films in this movie marketplace must rely more heavily on December moviegoing to determine their ultimate box office fate.”
Box office analysts often disregard 2020’s $21.4 million Thanksgiving haul, as few theaters were open and there were few films to watch. But, 2021 and 2022 had more titles available and neither reached $150 million in domestic ticket sales for the five-day period.
Early ticket sales suggest “Wish” could secure up to $55 million for the Wednesday-to-Sunday period including Thanksgiving. That trails previous Thanksgiving openers from Disney including “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” “Coco,” “The Good Dinosaur” and “Tangled” but is higher than the $18.9 million brought in by “Strange World” last year and the $40.6 million from “Encanto” in 2021, according to data from Comscore.
Yet, if “Wish” does reach that $55 million mark, it would be the seventh-biggest Thanksgiving opening of all time.
Add in second-week sales from Universal’s “Trolls Band Together,” Lionsgate’s “Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” and TriStar’s Eli Roth slasher flick “Thanksgiving,” as well as new entrants such as Apple’s “Napoleon,” and box office analysts foresee a haul of between $150 million and $160 million for the five-day spread.
“This is shaping up to be a very crowded Thanksgiving at the multiplex,” said Dergarabedian. “And ‘Wish’ will have to hope that the other new PG-rated animated family films on screens, like ‘Trolls Band Together,’ will not siphon off a larger-than-expected share of the target audience.”
Not to mention, box office expectations have not been particularly accurate this year. Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour concert film, Disney’s “The Marvels” and “Ballad” all delivered opening weekends that were shy of expectations.
Trouble in the Magic Kingdom
“Wish” has a lot riding on its opening weekend, as Disney looks to rebound from a slew of box office letdowns.
“After the misfire of ‘Strange World’ last year and the lingering impact of short-lived streaming strategies, it’s important for ‘Wish’ to bring back a bigger portion of their core audience now that other studios and animated franchises have performed so well over the last 18 months,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com.
Universal’s animated films, in particular, have excelled. In 2022, “Minions: The Rise of Gru” snared $942.5 million at the global box office, and earlier this year “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” tallied more than $1.35 billion globally. Similarly, Sony saw great success with “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” generating $684.9 million globally.
Meanwhile, Disney has yet to secure more than $500 million worldwide from an animated feature since 2019.
“Elemental,” released over the summer, managed to collect $479.8 million. The last time a Pixar film grossed less than $500 million was 2017’s “Cars 3,” which drew $383.5 million in ticket sales. On the Walt Disney Animation side, the last film to fall short of the $500 million mark before 2020 was 2014’s “Planes: Fire and Rescue,” which racked up $151.4 million globally.
Whether “Wish” wins over audiences is up in the air. It hasn’t inspired critics. The day before its opening, the film was hovering under 60% on Rotten Tomatoes, which translates to a “rotten” rating. Still, other Disney films such as “Pocahontas,” “Robin Hood,” “Oliver and Company,” “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” and “Brother Bear” all hold a rating under 60% on the review aggregator but are fan-favorite films for many.
So, even if “Wish” doesn’t have an immediately strong box office, it could find life on Disney+. After all, that’s what happened for Disney’s “Encanto.”
Released in 2021 for the Thanksgiving holiday, “Encanto” generated $40.6 million from the five-day Thanksgiving weekend domestically and went on to tally $257.5 million globally during its run. In the home market, the film continued to capture the attention of kids and adults alike with catchy tunes such as “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and “Surface Pressure.”
“‘Wish’ comes at an opportune time because the market has been starved for family content since summer ended,” said Robbins.
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal is the distributor of “Trolls Band Together,” “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” and “Minions: The Rise of Gru.” NBCUniversal also owns Rotten Tomatoes.
– CNBC’s Gabriel Cortés contributed to this article.