Fallen kingdom: why has Disney had such a terrible year?

<span>Photograph: Disney</span>
Photograph: Disney

For its 100th anniversary this year, Disney received a bucket of ice-cold water to the face. It may sound momentary, but somehow it’s the gift that has been giving all year, from the box office nosedive of Marvel’s Ant-Man sequel, to lower-than-expected international numbers for an expensive Little Mermaid remake, to series-low grosses on Lucasfilm’s Indiana Jones sequel. This continued all the way to November, when The Marvels outright flopped and Disney’s 100th-birthday cartoon Wish opened to an underwhelming number. It marks the first year since 2014, pandemic era not included, that the company failed to produce a billion-dollar hit.

Related: Wish review – Disney’s throwback animation is missing some magic

Financially speaking, the only bright spots were Elemental and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3, both of which held up following surprisingly soft opening weekends. And while Guardians scored good reviews, critics haven’t been wild about this lineup as a whole. Compare this with the last pre-pandemic year, 2019, when the company had seven different billion-dollar hits – and if they didn’t all notch great reviews, more than half of critics not actively loathing The Lion King still seems like a win, especially in retrospect.

So what’s gone wrong? Some have gleefully suggested Disney has gone “woke” and therefore broke, but this suggests a dim understanding of either word in the rhyme scheme, as well as a high degree of audience fragility. Any parents balking at something as anodyne as Disney’s supposed wokeness, which includes radical ideas such as sometimes having women and people of color starring in some movies, are going to run into problems functioning just about anywhere apart from faith-based entertainment. (If anything, the company’s longtime tendency to offer scraps of representation in tiny roles and trumpet them as ground-breaking firsts is alienating to so-called “woke” audiences, and probably unnoticed by the family audience at large.)

A cohort of more tech-minded observers and theatrical-experience hardliners would point instead to Disney Plus, the streaming service the company launched just before the pandemic hit. At first, the company seemed especially well-positioned for an extended theatrical shutdown, with the ultimate stay-indoors streaming toy, housing a vast (though not always as vast as you might expect) archive of Disney, Marvel, Star Wars and so on, plus a bunch of new TV shows. But as the pandemic pressed on, the number of new streaming series became daunting (and sometimes, on an individual basis, dauntingly terrible) and the expectation that Disney-related stuff would just appear on its streaming service may have become pervasive. Three Pixar movies in a row skipped theaters before the one that felt most like a streaming spinoff (Lightyear) was a theatrical exclusive. Black Widow debuted on premium VOD simultaneously with its theatrical run. Encanto was on Disney Plus within a month of its debut in theaters. Star Wars abruptly became a TV-only franchise, and has remained so for the past four years, without any firm shooting or release dates for new movies.

Some of these decisions made sense at the time, given the unpredictable nature of still-evolving Covid-19. But as others have pointed out, it may be the strength of Disney’s branding that left it particularly vulnerable to a less profitable and difficult-to-reverse streaming migration. For the average viewer, there likely isn’t a strong sense that, say, Universal Pictures and Peacock share a parent company (or possibly even that Peacock exists at all). They may “wait for streaming” for plenty of movies in the abstract, but there isn’t widespread awareness that Jurassic World Dominion or M3gan in particular are Universal movies and therefore future Peacock attractions. In contrast, it’s hard to miss that Disney movies wind up on Disney Plus – or even that Disney owns Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars, given how often it advertises its library of characters together under one roof. Paramount, on the other hand, could muster maybe a Star Trek association, but normal people won’t rattle off Mission: Impossible, Transformers and most of Eddie Murphy’s movies from the 1980s as pillars of that particular studio. Disney’s ubiquity may have made it harder to urge its audience to pay full-priced theatrical admissions.

The Disney branding behemoth has implications that go beyond simple consumer-decision economics, too. By the late 2010s, Disney appeared to have its brand and sub-brands neatly siloed and precisely calculated: features from Walt Disney Animation, with lineage stretching back nearly a century; more animation from Pixar, itself a modern-day institution that Disney now owns outright; a nominally live-action superhero universe, the most popular in the world, from Marvel; another beloved and established world of sci-fi and fantasy from Lucasfilm, mainly through its Star Wars brand; and a steady pipeline of live-action-ish remakes of older cartoons. In theory, its acquisition of 20th Century Fox would supplement these mega-releases with a few, well, normal movies (though in practice, mostly horror stuff and Avatars).

What happens, though, when the vast majority of a studio’s releases feel like part of a bigger universe, whether narratively or spiritually? Wish, its latest cartoon, has some catchy songs, a plucky heroine and appealing animation, but it also bends over backward attempting to draw together a century’s worth of Disney Animation Easter eggs, eventually becoming a de facto prequel to the studio’s whole library. Some of these references are clever, others are hamfisted, and they all clutter up the movie’s story with self-tribute. The interesting thing about Wish’s strange storyline, in which a seemingly benevolent but actually power-mad king takes possession of his subjects’ greatest wishes with the vague promise of occasionally granting them, is that it flirts with self-critique. As the movie itself eventually points out in a post-credits cookie, When You Wish Upon a Star has become a Disney theme song, and it’s easy enough to read King Magnifico (Chris Pine) as Disney itself, collecting the public’s wishes and dreams, then mostly delivering empty, self-serving spectacle in return – in other words, commodifying them.

film still of woman looking serious with hair over half her face
Brie Larson in The Marvels. Photograph: Laura Radford/AP

Yet Wish is a little too muddled to fully land this idea on a thematic level, and its otherwise sweetly pragmatic message that wishes come true through your own actions, and not someone else’s magic, is undermined when the movie starts connecting a bunch of magical dots to the fairy godmother from Cinderella and the “wishing star” from Pinocchio. It feels like the family-animation equivalent of woo-woo astrology. Similarly, it’s hard for the formidable and very human charisma of the stars from The Marvels to take center stage when there’s so much tedious mythologizing and obligatory laser-battling going on in most Marvel projects. (It seems like this movie’s solution was to impose a bunch of Marvel bullshit on the story, then hastily yank it out of the movie at the last minute, leaving it both charming and borderline incoherent.) No wonder that audiences seemed more receptive to Elemental; whatever the movie’s problems (and it has plenty), it is true to its title, in that the characters and themes do feel like fundamental building blocks, rather than figures arriving pre-franchised within an inch of their lives. For the moment, Pixar has staved off the feeling of a brand eating its own tail – though Inside Out 2 is coming next summer to offer a tougher test.

Related: From hero to zero: is this really Marvel’s endgame?

It’s not necessarily just a question of too many sequels, a charge that could be levied at any big movie studio. Rather, it’s the kind of relentless branding that turns every logo into a roll call of past triumphs. (Does every Marvel project really need to start with a constantly updated two-minute montage of characters, moments, even screenplay pages?) There are probably enough so-called Disney adults, to say nothing of actual kids, who still get excited about all the Disneys that Disney can Disney; some of the company’s strongest performers in recent years have been remakes of its own Disney classics, despite growing critical revulsion. This year’s The Little Mermaid may have been too costly to turn a huge profit, but it posted the kind of US grosses that the studio might have expected (and not achieved) for movies like Solo, Encanto, The Marvels, The Jungle Cruise and so on. Yet this is easily one of the least creatively successful of its various brand pillars; it’s essentially Disney presents Disney by Disney and something the company has trained audiences to expect. Through Searchlight, the upscale division of Fox, Disney still does release some terrific movies, such as the upcoming Poor Things and All of Us Strangers. Yet it still often appears baffled as to what to do with movies for grown-ups that aren’t immediately obvious awards contenders; it recently sold off the Jeff Nichols film The Bikeriders with what looked like a chilling shrug.

It’s the work of a company simultaneously over-reliant on its various purchased branding silos and willing to stir movies, TV, theme parks and a century’s worth of characters (many not really its own) into a single mouse-ear slurry. Disney has become so successful at selling itself as a one-stop shop, and so accustomed to a legion of corporate fans, that it winds up treating its potential art like the shelves of a Disney Store. Whether the individual movies and shows are good or bad, their parent company is failing to understand any wishes that aren’t just from shareholders and superfans, asking for more, more, more.