Why Disney has had an awful centenary year

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By Nicholas BarberFeatures correspondent

Alamy (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

Until quite recently, the studio looked unstoppable on its way to dominating Hollywood. But in 2023, its box office plummeted, and its magic faded. What has gone wrong?

The year 2023 should have been a magical one for The Walt Disney Company

The studio was founded by Walt and Roy Disney in 1923, so a host of films, books and events had been planned to celebrate its centenary. Recent cartoons such as Frozen and Moana had proven that its animation department was thriving, and various mergers had given the Company control of the Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel franchises, too.

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“It was an incredible collection of brands all in one place,” says Charles Gant, Screen International’s box office editor. “In 2019, Disney looked unstoppable.” Indeed, seven out of the 10 films in 2019’s global top 10 were Disney productions, each of them with box-office takings of over one billion dollars. If it seemed unlikely that 2023 would be quite as extraordinarily stellar, there must have been a hope it wouldn’t be far off.

Alamy Disney's latest animation Wish was intended to celebrate its 100th year, but it has had a poor showing at the box office (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

Disney’s latest animation Wish was intended to celebrate its 100th year, but it has had a poor showing at the box office (Credit: Alamy)

Instead, it became known as the year when the studio’s magic faded. At the time of writing, the year’s top three global hits are Barbie, The Super Mario Bros Movie, and Oppenheimer, all of them made by Disney’s rivals. The so-called Mouse House is represented by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 in fourth place, and the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid at number nine, but the hits were outnumbered by the misses. The Marvels was the lowest grossing release ever to come from Marvel Studios. It was, Gant tells BBC Culture, “a flat-out calamity, and a reminder to studio heads that just because a film grosses more than $1bn worldwide (as Captain Marvel did in 2019), that does not mean audiences are eager for a sequel”.

This year’s other Marvel offering, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, was a disappointment. The Haunted Mansion was a bona fide flop. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny made half the money that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull did back in 2008. A Pixar cartoon, Elemental, had a dismal opening weekend, and although its fortunes improved, Pixar’s president, Jim Morris, was hardly gushing when he told Variety’s Rebecca Rubin in August: “At the box office we’re looking at now, it should do better than break even theatrically… This will certainly be a profitable film for the Disney Company.”

The underwhelming year was rounded off by Wish, a cartoon that was made specifically to commemorate a century of Disney animation. Audiences didn’t feel like joining the party, and it was beaten on its opening weekend by Napoleon and The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. “It’s a far, far cry from Disney’s pre-pandemic Thanksgiving releases,” said Rubin in Variety.

Gant points out that “it’s possible to exaggerate” its recent misfortunes. and that some of the numbers were “not so bad”. But this was the first year since 2014 (if you don’t count the pandemic interlude) that none of Disney’s films broke the billion-dollar barrier. It turns out that when you wish upon a star, your dreams don’t always come true.

The possible reasons for its woes

How did 2023 go so wrong? Pundits have been puzzling over the Mouse House’s annus horribilis for weeks, identifying several factors. A key one being that the Covid-19 pandemic got people into the habit of watching films at home rather than in cinemas, and as Disney has its own streaming service, everyone knows where they can find the studio’s output. If you were are a Disney+ subscriber, the logic goes, why would you buy a ticket for a film you could see for no extra charge a month or two later? 

Then there is “superhero fatigue”, ie, the public’s “enough already” response to a wave of second-string comic-book characters – and this phenomenon hit DC / Warner’s films, such as Blue Beetle, The Flash and Shazam! Fury of the Gods, just as hard as it hit Marvel’s.

Alamy The Marvels was the lowest ever grossing Marvel release – showing how the superhero franchise may be flagging (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

The Marvels was the lowest ever grossing Marvel release – showing how the superhero franchise may be flagging (Credit: Alamy)

But there is another, more important explanation for Disney’s woes this year. The films just weren’t good enough. As diverse as they were, what they had in common was their sloppiness: the weak concepts, scrappy visuals, and muddled plots which must have been apparent to everyone who saw them. As noted by Brennan Klein at Screen Rant, Wish was the first Disney cartoon to receive a “Rotten” rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes since Chicken Little in 2005.

Not that this issue was confined to 2023. Last year’s Disney science-fiction cartoon, Strange World, and Pixar’s Toy Story spin-off, Lightyear, flopped for the same rudimentary reason. But this year film after film had enough glaring flaws to turn off audiences and critics alike. Never mind the pandemic or superhero fatigue or the lure of streaming; whatever the circumstances, few people who sat through Wish or The Marvels can have felt that they deserved to be world-conquering box-office smashes.

This year, the Mouse House was selling more of the same old stuff, and audiences weren’t buying it.

If anything connected the substandard quality of these films, it was how backward-looking they were. Perhaps studio executives were too focused on the company’s centenary, but they seemed intent on living off former glories rather than trying anything creative. They banked on nostalgia, at the expense of everything else. The slogan on many of their posters could have been: “Like something you’ve seen before, but worse.”

This laurel-resting complacency was in stark contrast with the boldness of Barbie and Oppenheimer. One of these films flitted between time periods as it examined why the human race was determined to destroy itself. The other used a children’s doll to mock the patriarchy, and finished with a visit to a gynaecologist. David Fear at Rolling Stone called Barbie “the most subversive blockbuster of the 21st Century”. And Disney? The Mouse House was selling more of the same old stuff, and audiences weren’t buying it.

This might seem surprising given that the company’s last golden year, 2019, was defined by sequels and remakes. The seven films it had in the global top 10 included Avengers: Endgame, Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, Frozen 2, Toy Story 4, The Lion King, and Aladdin. And yet, while all of these films were derivative on one level, they all promised audiences a glimpse of something new. Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker were both long-awaited conclusions to epic multi-part fantasies. The Lion King had photorealistic animals. Frozen 2 was a big-budget sequel to a recent Disney cartoon, something which had never been tried before.

A state of creative inertia

Compare all of those to this year’s crop of Disney films. The return of an ageing Indiana Jones? We had that in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – and that wasn’t exactly dazzling, either. The Little Mermaid? The novelty of live-action remakes has worn off, and as this one involved talking sea creatures, it was obvious from the first trailers that it would have been better left as a cartoon. Elemental? Well, Pixar’s writers often imagine that toys, cars and emotions are people, so imagining that the classical elements of fire, water, land and air are people was par for the course.

As for Wish, it wasn’t a sequel or a remake, but it was still too familiar for comfort. Disney has brought us a few too many sweet-natured, determined, but clumsy fairy-tale princesses in the past decade, and the latest one, Asha, was surrounded by references to Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, Pinocchio, and more. As Donald Clarke noted in The Irish Times, “Its backwards glances serve only to remind us how transcendent Disney animation once was – as recently as Frozen – without offering any hopeful signposts to the future.”

Alamy Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny provided diminishing returns in all sense (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny provided diminishing returns in all sense (Credit: Alamy)

And what about Marvel’s films? The trouble there was that 2019’s Avengers: Endgame rounded off a decade of interlinked blockbusters. It was the final chapter in what was dubbed “The Infinity Saga”, so that everything since then has felt like a postscript or a footnote: worth a glance if you’re a fan of the title characters, but no longer an essential part of a major ongoing narrative. Luckily for Disney, Guardians of the Galaxy always seemed to be largely separate from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so Vol 3 could be seen as the finale of a distinctive trilogy. But Ant-Man and Captain Marvel still seemed to be getting over The Infinity Saga instead of moving on.

Still, if there was a simple reason for Disney’s troubles, the good news is that there is a simple solution to them, too. All the studio has to do is make better films. Admittedly, that’s slightly easier said than done, but this year’s failures should at least encourage the Company to be more adventurous. 

We’re still talking about a mega-corporation, of course, so “adventurous” is a relative term. We can expect the superhero side of things to be shaken up by a revival of The Fantastic Four and The X-Men, Marvel properties which were once owned by 20th Century Fox, and have now been gobbled up by Disney. We can expect a live-action remake of Moana, and it’s the first of these remakes to feature the actors who did the voices in the cartoon. So maybe Disney won’t be tremendously original any time soon, but it may well be unoriginal in some intriguing new ways. That could be enough to bring back a spark of magic.

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