Why Don't Animated Movies and Sci-Fi Seem to Mix?
Disney’s Strange World released over Thanksgiving weekend, and despite mainly solid reviews, it’s on track to be one of the studio’s biggest box office disappointments. Its opening weekend was a bust, and it stopped just shy of earning $12 million in its first three days. As it stands, Disney will ultimately be fine thanks to the one-two combo of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Avatar: The Way of Water, but hearing that the studio may lose $100 million on Strange World is being used as a point of discussion online.
On social media, the common refrain was that no one knew the film was coming out until fairly recently, and that Disney intentionally chose to undermarket the film since one of its central leads is a queer teen voiced by Jaboukie Young-White. Whether or not that’s actually true (some have argued promos were regularly playing on TV for weeks), Strange World follows the same trajectory of Lightyear from this past summer. That movie, which was the first fully theatrical Disney animated film since Onward in 2020 at the start of the pandemic, grossed $226.4 million against a $200 million budget and failed to land with audiences theatrically.
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The common thread linking both films—beyond being Disney films, obviously—is that they’re science-fiction adventure films. Over the decades, these types of animated movies have failed to land much of a footing financially: Disney’s Treasure Planet (which recently turned 20 years old) bombed, as did 20th Century Fox’s Titan A.E. from 2000. Though both those films garnered cult followings in the years following their releases, they remained big losses for their respective companies, and being recognized as great years after the fact is frankly not what non-tentpole media should aspire to do. It’s almost as if, unless sci-fi movies are set on Earth (see Lilo & Stitch) or come attached to a pre-existing franchise... that’s also set on Earth (Spider-Verse, Ninja Turtles), people just won’t turn up to see them.
Sci-fi franchises hit with audiences, but that isn’t always the case with original work. Sometimes, you get a megahit like Interstellar or a fun romp like Killjoys or Final Space. Other times, you wind up with a dud like 2019's Ad Astra, or Moonfall from back in February. (Granted, the latter was apparently dull as dirt, so not much of a surprise there.) In video games, things are fairly better thanks to franchises like Mass Effect and Halo, and Metroid when Nintendo gets around to releasing a new installment. Compared to watching actors pretend to be sci-fi heroes for two hours, actually playing as one and exploring the galaxy is easily the better option between the two. Even so, it’s hard to say why sci-fi hasn’t entirely taken off with audiences, particularly animation fans.
One reason may be that the fantasy genre just stole sci-fi’s thunder. Folks love themselves some fantasy animation, be it franchise fare (Castlevania), something wholly new (The Dragon Prince), or in between (Critical Role). Over the years, audiences have responded to those shows in droves; Castlevania’s got a Nocturne spinoff in the works after a respectable four-season run, and The Dragon Prince has grown into a multimedia franchise as Netflix has gradually pulled the show out of the attic. Critical Role has spent nearly a decade growing into a larger Dungeons & Dragons-adjacent brand, and that’s doubtful to stop anytime soon as it continues expanding into books and having more campaigns for its actors to partake in. Beyond that, you’re more likely to see fans make art of popular characters in fantasy settings than you are of sci-fi.
It might also be that sci-fi has largely locked itself off to live action over the years. Star Trek and Star Wars have well-liked animated series, but both franchises prioritize their live-action fare. Not just that, but the sci-fi is often serious: if you asked someone about a sci-fi show (and eliminating Star Trek or Star Wars), they’re likely to think of a drama like Stranger Things or Westworld. Animation fans clearly love sci-fi, whether it’s the science fantasy of Star Wars or sexiness and bleak capitalism of cyberpunk. But unlike fantasy, sci-fi hasn’t fully gotten the chance to spread its wings and show folks what it’s fully capable of, at least in film.
The genre needs a hit that it can call its own, something that can be viewed in the same light as a Castlevania or Dreamworks’ Dragons series. For that to happen, it may require a studio other than Disney to take the reigns on an endeavor. There’s no doubting that the studio can make hits, but between Lightyear and Strange World, it’s becoming evident that the Mouse House doesn’t fully have what it takes to reach the stars.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water.
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