Walt Disney’s ‘Strange World’ Must Succeed Where ‘Atlantis’ Failed

It is a little ironic to see the second trailer for Walt Disney’s
Strange World arriving online in time for the rerelease of James Cameron’s Avatar this coming Friday. Stripped down to the primal elements, the plot of Strange World feels like a redo of Walt DIsney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire. And while the explicit details are different, the actual plot of Atlantis (about a young man who ventures to a fantastical world, falls in love with an indigenous princess and switches sides to defend the locals against imperialistic violence before choosing to stay behind) is quite like Avatar. Cameron’s 3-D blockbuster wasn’t trying to win points for originality, and Atlantis is just one film (Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Battle for Terra) with narrative similarities. However, Disney would prefer Strange World’s commercial trajectory play closer to Avatar than to The Lost Empire.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire was noteworthy in the summer of 2001 for being the first Walt Disney toon since The Black Cauldron to get a PG rating. It got that rating thanks to a sky-high body count which saw countless members of the explorer team/mercenary crew die badly as they made their way to the title locale. Like Titan A.E. the previous summer, which depicted the annihilation of Earth and Star Wars-style action violence, the film was an attempt to more closely align the animated movie with live-action adventures like Jurassic Park, The Mummy and Mission: Impossible II. This was back when movies like The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame snuck by with G ratings, so you really had to *earn* that PG in the pre-Shrek era. Of course, now pretty much every toon gets a PG for ‘mild action’ or ‘rude humor.’

Shrek opened in May of 2001. It became the season’s biggest grosser with $268 million domestic and $484 million global. In terms of how it asserted theatrical animation as a PG-rated, pop culture-infused, boy-targeted sub-genre), it was as much of a game-changer that year as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Atlantis came to typify the post-Katzenberg, pre-Lasseter era of Walt Disney Animation (from Atlantis to Meet the Robinsons). The studio’s non-Pixar output struggled commercially and culturally against the rise of Pixar (from Finding Nemo to Toy Story 3) and the peak popularity of DreamWorks Animation (from Shrek 2 to Madagascar 3). The Lost Empire earned just $186 million on a $120 million budget, and Treasure Planet (in November of 2002) would make just $110 million on a $140 million budget. That brings us to Strange World.

The original WDA release has renewed pressure to deliver theatrically after the underwhelming (if hamstrung) results for Raya and the Last Dragon ($130 million in early 2021, less than Paw Patrol and Tom & Jerry) and Encanto ($250 million in late 2021, about on par with The Bad Guys in early 2022). You can argue that Bob Chapek doesn’t care that much about theatrical if the Disney+ train keeps a-chugging. But from a macro point of view, does Disney want to cede theatrical animation domination to Comcast
and its DreamWorks and Illumination-released films? Not only will that change the broader cultural image of Walt Disney as an entertainment powerhouse, but I’d argue that Disney does not want its animated films (quality notwithstanding) to be viewed as second-class offerings when they arrive on Disney+. Does Disney want to start playing runner-up?

Disney gets a lot of juice from being perceived as the biggest of the big. That’s an image worth spending theatrical marketing bucks to maintain, even if the rate of return comes up a little short. I hope they realize the commercial and cultural value of having their next original animated adventure be perceived as an unmitigated theatrical winner. Yes, original animated films had struggled well before Covid. The last original blockbuster toon was Coco ($800 million) in late 2017. No, we shouldn’t automatically expect a return to the over/under $650 million grosses on par with Moana, Tangled and Big Hero 6. But Strange World is a big-budget action comedy/family melodrama from Walt Disney. It should be at least competing with Sing 2 if not Sing, as opposed to The Bad Guys or Smallfoot. Strange World opens over Thanksgiving weekend. No pressure…

The feature film introduces a legendary family of explorers, the Clades, as they attempt to navigate an uncharted, treacherous land alongside a motley crew that includes a mischievous blob, a three-legged dog and a slew of ravenous creatures. “Inspired by classic adventure stories,” said director Don Hall, “‘Strange World’ is an original animated adventure/comedy about three generations of the Clade family who overcome their differences while exploring a strange, wondrous and oftentimes hostile world.”

The voice cast includes Jake Gyllenhaal as Searcher Clade, a family man who finds himself out of his element on an unpredictable mission; Dennis Quaid as Searcher’s larger-than-life explorer father, Jaeger; Jaboukie Young-White as Searcher’s 16-year-old son, Ethan, who longs for adventure; Gabrielle Union as Meridian Clade, an accomplished pilot and Searcher’s partner in all things; and Lucy Liu as Callisto Mal, Avalonia’s fearless leader who spearheads the exploration into the strange world. “Strange World” is helmed by Don Hall (Oscar®-winning “Big Hero 6,” “Raya and the Last Dragon”) and co-director/writer Qui Nguyen (co-writer “Raya and the Last Dragon”), and produced by Roy Conli (Oscar®-winning “Big Hero 6,” “Tangled”).

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