Disney's modern remakes of their animated classics typically earn mixed or negative reviews, so why do they keep hitting $1 billion at the box office? Beginning with Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland in 2010, the Mouse House discovered there was an audience for retellings of some of their most famous tales. Over the past several years, a number of titles from the Disney vault have received this treatment, including a number of the ones from the studio's fabled 1990s renaissance. Not every one of Disney's remakes have been a smashing success (sorry, Dumbo), but a majority of them have turned a healthy profit.
Just this year, Aladdin and The Lion King, the two most recent remakes, punched their tickets into the $1 billion club. They joined Alice in Wonderland and Beauty and the Beast on the list of $1 billion Disney remakes (and Jungle Book is right there with $966.6 million). Besides commercial prowess, there's something else a lot of these movies have in common - they are far from critical darlings. While the animated originals are hailed as some of the best of all-time, the remakes can't recapture that same magic. So why do these films keep hitting $1 billion? Let's take a look.
Obviously, the domestic box office is still very important in the grand scheme of things, but in today's age, there's arguably a greater emphasis on the worldwide marketplace. Films that struggled to make much of an impact in the States, like Pacific Rim, were ultimately able to turn a profit because they were sizable draws overseas. In order for any movie to make $1 billion, it needs to have massive international appeal. Just about every member of the $1 billion club has made more money internationally than domestically. Rare exceptions include The Dark Knight, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Black Panther. Even domestic record holder Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which earned $936.6 million in the U.S. didn't the buck the trend, as it made 54.7% of its total internationally.
The ratios on the $1 billion Disney remakes aren't even close. All of them made over 60% of their total in foreign countries, meaning the domestic hauls were under 40%. At first glance, this is an incredible accomplishment since many of these classic Disney titles first became popular before there was an emphasis placed on the global market. However, the animated original were huge draws internationally as well. The 1994 Lion King made $545.7 million overseas. The 1992 Aladdin grossed $286.7 million internationally. The original Beauty and the Beast from 1991 had nearly an even split between its domestic and international numbers. Disney's always been a global brand, and the studio is very much aware of that fact. Audiences from all over are keen on seeing these stories again and again.
The Power of Disney Nostalgia
For decades, pop culture has banked on nostalgia to appeal to its target audience. Nowadays, it's the 1980s and 1990s' turn in this cycle, since the current adult target moviegoing audience were kids back then. This is partially why Stranger Things is one of Netflix's biggest hits and everything from Star Wars to Jurassic Park to The Terminator have gotten legacy sequels this decade. Not only do these projects attract adults who have fond memories of growing up playing with lightsabers and dinosaurs, they're also designed to be four-quadrant blockbusters, igniting the passion of a new generation of fans. Parents (who were children in the 1980s and 1990s) take their own children to see the movies, keeping bankable properties alive.
There are few brands that fit this bill better than Disney animated films. A majority of people who consume entertainment had some exposure to the House of Mouse when they were a kid, watching movies like Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast. Films usually don't get to $1 billion without great marketing, and the Disney remake campaigns are typically tailor-made to conjure up warm, fuzzy feelings of nostalgia for the original animated film. Trailers and TV spots rely heavily on classic imagery such as the iconic Lion King opening and Aladdin and Jasmine flying together on the magic carpet. Several of these Disney movies also have hit songs that make for killer soundtracks on marketing materials, which only adds exponentially to the nostalgia factor.
Disney Remakes Have Big Stars
Lately, there's less of a premium placed on individual movie stars, as franchises and brands have become the big stars in Hollywood. Anyone can lead a Marvel or Star Wars movie, and only a handful of the $1 billion grossers are original stories. However, there's still a place for the big A-list name and every once in a while it helps to have a genuine movie star attached. One of the reason why Once Upon a Time in Hollywood scored Quentin Tarantino's highest opening weekend ever is because it's headlined by Leonardo DiCaprio, one of his generation's most popular actors who's been a sizable box office draw even when he's starring in R-rated tales of Wall Street excess or intense revenge period pieces. Disney remakes would sell no matter what, but they too are reaping the benefits of using the star system.
One of the biggest draws for Aladdin was Will Smith's Genie. Even though the character's look was being ridiculed in marketing, there were still those interested to see Smith's spin on the role and how it compared to the late Robin Williams. And it's been a while since Smith was in his box office heyday, but he remains one of the biggest personalities in Hollywood and has a large fan base. Aladdin became the highest-grossing film of his career. Smith alone isn't why that happened, but he was still a primary factor. The Lion King was so buzzed about because of the incredibly star-studded cast featuring Donald Glover, Beyonce, and others. Again, chances are these movies would have been successful no matter who was cast in them, but there's no denying the star power gave them a little extra juice.
Disney Remakes Are Critic Proof
All of the above points essentially confirm that Disney remakes are largely critic-proof, meaning bad reviews don't impact how they perform at the box office. There are exceptions to this rule, of course (again, sorry Dumbo), but for the most part people come out to see these regardless of word-of-mouth. The Lion King is the sixth Disney remake (out of 10 total) to have a Rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes; Alice in Wonderland and Aladdin are also among that group. The outlier of the $1 billion remake is Beauty and the Beast, which stands at 71%. That's a healthy score, but still a few points off from being Certified Fresh. None of these films were critical darlings.
Of course, this isn't anything new for the $1 billion club. A couple of Transformers film earned that much and last summer Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom made $1 billion despite mixed reviews. Certain films need positive reviews and strong word-of-mouth to thrive at the theater; a crop of Best Picture contenders coming out during awards season or an original movie looking to make a splash fall into that category. But stuff that has a built-in audience that'll show up no matter what doesn't always need 5-star reviews to thrive. It would be nice if all $1 billion hits were acclaimed, but that's the benefit of franchise filmmaking and brand recognition.