Disney’s 10 biggest animated flops

Clockwise L to R: Sleeping Beauty, The Sword In The Stone, Fantasia 2000, The Black Cauldron
All images © Walt Disney Studios
Clockwise L to R: Sleeping Beauty, The Sword In The Stone, Fantasia 2000, The Black Cauldron All images © Walt Disney Studios

Before Strange World premiered over Thanksgiving weekend, we wondered whether Disney could attract audiences to an animated film that wasn’t a musical or a sequel. Now we know the answer—a resounding nope. Despite generally positive reviews, the film’s generic marketing campaign didn’t give Disney fans a compelling reason to see it in theaters and it fizzled at the box office (to be fair, none of the weekend’s new releases had stellar openings). The film earned just $18.6 million domestically and $27.8 million worldwide. Compare that to an estimated budget of $120 million and Disney is looking at a lot of red in its ledger. Even if the film somehow manages to overcome the initial disappointment and build on its numbers in the coming weeks, that’s a lot of ground to make up.

We won’t know the final take until it finishes its theatrical run, but the news already has us wondering where Strange World will eventually rank among Disney’s biggest animated bombs. In case you’re also curious, here’s a list of films that were considered flops due to underperformance at the box office in their initial theatrical runs. You may be surprised to find some beloved classics on this list; they may be considered successful now, but at the time they came out they were financial disasters. Keep in mind that these totals are based on worldwide theatrical box office and don’t include subsequent re-releases, streaming, or home video, all of which have boosted their overall take through the years. Perhaps there will come a day, maybe in the distant future, when Strange World will get its due as well.

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10. Fantasia 2000 (1999)

Fantasia 2000 (1999) Trailer | Disney | James Levine | Steve Martin

Budget: $85 million

Box office gross: $90 million

Michael Eisner, who was head of Disney at the time this film was released, reportedly called Fantasia 2000 “Roy’s folly,” after Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney, who made this his pet project. To be fair, though, it was Eisner who greenlit the film in the first place after seeing a renewed interest in the original Fantasia (also a flop at the time of its release) thanks to a 50th-anniversary re-release and a special edition on home video. Among other challenges, Fantasia 2000 had an unusual two-stage theatrical run, beginning with an exclusive engagement in IMAX theaters and then later moving into wider release. It did manage to make back its estimated $85 million in production costs during that period, but just barely.

9. Bambi (1942)

Bambi Blu-Ray - Official® Trailer [HD]

Budget: $858,000

Box office gross: $2.9 million

One of many films that suffered due to a release in the midst of World War II, Bambi was the fifth animated feature produced by Walt Disney Productions and the first that didn’t have any kind of fantasy element to it. Audiences didn’t know what to make of this animated nature film with heavy themes and some pretty dark moments. Bambi would eventually come into its own through a number of theatrical re-releases (at least one per decade since the ’40s) that have added to its box-office numbers considerably and landed it a permanent place among the most beloved of Disney’s classic animated films.

8. The Sword In The Stone (1963)

The Sword in the Stone 1963 Preview | Disney

Budget: $3 million

Box office gross: $4.7 million

The last animated film to be released during Walt Disney’s lifetime was, sadly, neither a creative nor a financial success. The Sword In The Stone was Disney’s take on the Arthurian legend, inspired by the book The Once And Future King. The production faced troubles at every turn—from a delay due to World War II to casting issues to a meandering story that never comes into focus—and the final product suffers as a result. Still, it did make back its budget during its first theatrical run and has built a legacy among fans with fond memories of trying to pull the legendary sword from the stone at Disneyland, where it still stands today, right next to the King Arthur Carousel.

7. Alice In Wonderland (1951)

Alice in Wonderland (1951) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Budget: $3 million

Box office gross: $2.4 million

We’re now into the part of the list consisting of films that didn’t just eke out a slim margin of profit, but actively lost Disney money. In this case, a cool million dollars (that’s what the studio officially had to write off). Alice In Wonderland not only confused American audiences, where it wasn’t well known, it drew sharp criticism in the U.K. for its butchering of Lewis Carroll’s books. This time there was no world war or outside circumstances to blame for the film’s disappointing performance, and Disney (himself a long-time fan of Carroll’s works) accepted responsibility for the film’s lack of heart and incoherent story.

6. Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Sleeping Beauty Official Trailer

Budget: $6 million

Box office gross: $5.3 million

Although it’s widely recognized now as one of Disney’s best and most artistic animated features, back in 1959 it failed to wow audiences at the box office. It was also the studio’s most technically advanced and expensive film up to that point. In the aftermath of its release, the studio posted its first financial loss in a decade and restructured its animation department, including instituting massive layoffs. Part of the reason Sleeping Beauty is often considered the high-water mark of Disney’s early animation phase (technically it falls into the “Silver Age”) is that from this point forward the studio cut costs and kept its budgets lean. And it showed.

5. Fantasia (1940)

Fantasia Trailer (1940)

Budget: $2.2 million (not including exhibition costs)

Box office gross: $1.4 million

Fantasia had an unusual first theatrical outing, which makes it difficult to track, but it was hardly a success by any measure. Hoping to make a big event out of it, Disney turned the film into a roadshow attraction, booking it in successive theatrical engagements across the country. His ambitions proved to be too costly, though, as each production required the installation of a specific sound system called Fantasound and special lighting cues. The film earned a combined $1.4 million in its first 11 engagements, which didn’t cover the technical costs in excess of $85,000 per theater. In 1941, RKO took over the film’s general distribution but the film wouldn’t recoup its initial costs until 1942.

4. Pinocchio (1940)

Pinocchio (1940) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Budget: $2.6 million

Box office gross: $1.4 million

The success of Walt Disney’s first animated feature, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, was a tough act to follow, and in its initial theatrical outing, Pinocchio suffered in the shadow of its predecessor. The fledgling studio had to write down a $1 million loss (which was a lot in 1940) due to being cut off from overseas theaters in the lead-up to World War II. Disney was reportedly depressed by the poor returns, but continued on with his next ambitious feature undaunted. Unfortunately, that feature (Fantasia) would also struggle in its theatrical debut.

3. The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

The Rescuers Down Under 1990 Trailer | Disney

Budget: $37.9 million

Box office gross: $27.9 million

This tepid sequel barely registered at the box office in its opening weekend, taking in just $3.5 million and causing Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg to pull all TV advertising, further depressing returns. The poor performance of The Rescuers Down Under was foreshadowed by a 1989 re-release of the original 1977 film The Rescuers, which also didn’t do very well in theaters, but by that point production on the sequel was well underway so there wasn’t much Disney could do except swallow the inevitable loss.

2. The Black Cauldron (1985)

The Black Cauldron (1985) Trailer (VHS Capture)

Budget: $44 million

Box office gross: $21 million

Apparently, it only took two and a half decades for Walt Disney Productions to forget the lesson of Sleeping Beauty. At the time it was released, The Black Cauldron was the most expensive animated film ever made and it too was a massive flop in theaters. Unlike Sleeping Beauty, though, it hasn’t held up or earned glowing praise in retrospect. This troubled production encapsulates the turmoil the company was experiencing at the time. Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg had just come on board after an executive shuffle and inherited the film, which they didn’t like and didn’t know what to do with. Today it’s remembered more for being one of Disney’s biggest failures than anything else.

1. Treasure Planet (2002)

Treasure Planet (2002) Official Trailer #1 - Animated Movie HD

Budget: $140 million

Box office gross: $109.5 million

A sci-fi adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island set in space—it sounds good on paper, right? Not to theatergoers in 2002, apparently. Treasure Planet currently stands at number one (perhaps to be supplanted by Strange World in the coming weeks?) on the list of Disney’s biggest flops of all time. After a streak of animated hits in the ’90s (the height of the so-called Disney animation renaissance), along came Treasure Planet, a blend of 2-D and 3-D animation at a time when that was still a very expensive proposition. It didn’t fit neatly into the Disney mold, and audiences were already embracing fully computer-animated films from the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks. This wouldn’t have been a major issue if Disney had been able to keep the costs down, but the film’s bloated budget didn’t come close to matching its earning potential, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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