Disney’s ‘Wish’ disappoints during Thanksgiving, extending an animation box office rut

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Ariana DeBose stars as Asha in Disney’s new animated film “Wish.”
Disney

Disney needs to do more than wish on some stars to get out of its animation rut.

Its latest animated feature “Wish,” billed as a celebration of 100 years of storytelling, fumbled at the box office during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. It tallied just $31.6 million over the five-day period, far below box office analysts’ expectations of between $45 million and $55 million.

Lionsgate’s “Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” took the top spot for the five-day holiday, generating $42.2 million in ticket sales. Apple and Sony’s “Napoleon,” an R-rated war epic from Ridley Scott, came in second with $32.75 million.

It’s historically rare for Disney to lag at the Thanksgiving box office. The company has for more than a decade released top-grossing animated films during the Wednesday-to-Sunday frame and even set records for highest-grossing openings for films released on Thanksgiving.

But it’s struggled since the pandemic to inspire moviegoers to head to cinemas for its newest features.

“A set it and forget it strategy based on past performance can no longer be employed by any studio,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “There are some hard lessons being learned as this confounding movie marketplace continues to re-write the rules and audiences make their preferences known with either their presence or the absence at the multiplex.”

The underperformance of “Wish” extends an unfortunate pattern for the company, which operates two animation studios — Walt Disney Animation and Pixar.

Much of Disney’s trouble has come 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.

Parents, confused about when and where animated films were being released, didn’t show up to theaters for a number of titles from Disney in the wake of the pandemic. And many of those films weren’t well-received by those who did.

Then there’s the added pressures of shareholders who have become focused on the profitability of Disney+, tight marketing budgets and audiences that have become more selective about when and what they go out to see at cinemas.

Disney, which ruled the animation genre for decades, is also facing steep competition from Netflix, Universal, Sony and Warner Bros., among others, for moviegoers’ attention. Just a week before “Wish” hit theaters, Universal’s DreamWorks animation studio released “Trolls Band Together,” the third installment in the popular Trolls franchise.

“Trolls Band Together” secured $25.6 million in ticket sales during the five-day Thanksgiving frame, just a few million shy of “Wish.” Box office analysts believe “Trolls” ate into “Wish” ticket sales.

“Entering a marketplace with a familiar ‘Trolls’ movie already in the mix was a recipe for a less than stellar result for the company’s latest release,” Dergarabedian said.

Still, the story of “Wish” isn’t done. Disney has found success over the run of a theatrical release for films like “Elemental,” which tallied just $29.6 million during its domestic opening, but went on to secure nearly $480 million globally before leaving theaters.

Similarly, “Encanto” snared $40.3 million for the five-day Thanksgiving period in 2021. Although it captured less than $250 million globally during the pandemic, it found new life on Disney+. The film quickly became a fan favorite with kids and adults alike, who gravitated towards catchy tunes like “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.”

“‘Wish’ fortunately has the December holiday family moviegoing corridor and of course a future on Disney+ to bolster its fortunes,” said Dergarabedian.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal distributed “Trolls Band Together.”

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