Disney's Best Box Office Year Ever is Also a Creative Smash

Disney's Best Box Office Year Ever is Also a Creative Smash

By Robert Dougherty Nov 23, 2016 03:08 PM
Photo Credit: Walt Disney Animation

Disney is set to have a big Thanksgiving weekend when Moana opens. Not only is it expected to supplant Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them at the box office and have one of the biggest Thanksgiving weekends ever, the vast majority of critics seem to believe it deserves it. It would make for a major critical and commercial smash, which is a combination that's been old hat for Disney the entire year.

With almost 80 years of existence so far, more than a few of those years have been gigantic for Disney. However, 2016 has taken a special place as one of the best years of quality and box office that Disney's ever had, and this is even before Moana and Rogue One wrap it up.

All told, 11 movies have been released in 2016 under the Disney banner in some fashion. Four of them have made over $300 million domestic, a fifth is creeping up on $200+ million, and two more are aiming to top that soon. As an added bonus, Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book, Zootopia, Finding Dory and Doctor Strange have all also taken their spot as some of the best reviewed blockbusters of 2016, with Moana to follow in that vein and with fingers crossed that Rogue One will do the same.

That magic touch was used by Universal Pictures throughout 2015, with the likes of Furious 7, Straight Outta Compton, Jurassic World, Pitch Perfect 2 and more. But 2016 completely belongs to Disney, thanks to extending its near perfect recent record with regular animation, Pixar animation and the MCU.

Marvel Studios

The formula for the MCU is well established by now, as this is the second straight year it had a smash with all the Avengers together in early May, followed by a more surprising success with a much smaller new solo character. Nonetheless, 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man were mere warm-up acts for Civil War and Doctor Strange, in terms of Avenger vs Avenger brawling and utter weirdness in new dimensions.

Technically, Civil War did worse than Age of Ultron domestically, whether or not it was just because they didn't officially put Avengers in the title. But Doctor Strange outdid Ant-Man as a second act, further proving that no character was too obscure and no production was too troubled to become a big MCU hit anyway. And with three MCU movies coming next year instead of two, acquiring Marvel and letting Kevin Feige run its movies continues to be one of Disney's smarter investments.

Marvel Studios

While the MCU has been reliable for several years, it still doesn't compare to Pixar's 20+ years of service yet. But for all of Pixar's classics and smash hits, no Pixar film has ever turned out as big as Finding Dory, to the tune of $486+ million. Not only was it the extremely rare sequel in 2016 to out gross its predecessor, it was the even more extremely rare sequel in 2016 that wasn't a complete betrayal of its predecessor.

Pixar's track record with sequels is one of the few less than perfect things about it, at least when they aren't Toy Story sequels. Finding Dory could have easily been another Cars 2 or Monsters University, from promoting its comic relief supporting character to a lead and from the questionable purpose of even making a sequel. Yet unlike those sequels and so many others in 2016, Finding Dory found real reasons to justify its existence beyond money, and messages that carried on what made the original so special.


Furthering the legacy of a pre-existing franchise and cinematic universe is one thing, as they have their obvious safety nets. However, remaking a nearly 50-year-old animated film that’s already been rebooted a few times is slightly less of a sure thing. Regardless, The Jungle Book pulled it off in a new that bodes well for Disney’s other countless remakes to come.

Jon Favreau not only made a new live action version of Mowgli’s word, he immersed audiences in it in ways that few other 3D films have done. Beyond that, he honored the guidelines of the original story without completely duplicating it, like some said Cinderella did. Not only did he make The Jungle Book resonate for a new generation, he has turned it into another new franchise, and opened the door for a Lion King live action remake to have the same immersive magic.

Walt Disney Pictures

It is easy to say Disney is doing nothing but remaking their old hits, making sequels of them, and riding the coattails of Marvel, Pixar and LucasFilm. But there has been room for Disney to do completely original work in recent years anyway, and it has come from its traditional animation department. In fact, it may have its biggest one-two punch of original animated films in one year with Zootopia and Moana.

The bar for Disney was really set with Zootopia this year. After coasting on The Force Awakens’ record-setting numbers at the start of 2016, Disney’s first big film for the year was Zootopia back in March. No one could have expected then that it would be the highest grossing film released that month, but it both outpaced Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and became far easier to take seriously.

Talking animal societies are quite common in Disney, but few appeared to be this advanced, and few proved to be quite so human. Zootopia already seemed to be a movie of the moment when its darker themes about prejudice, scapegoating and how “fear always works” first unfolded, but now it might well have been ahead of its time. Of course, Disney always comes through with the happy and hopeful endings that real life often doesn’t, yet it doesn’t totally Disneyfy its fractured metropolis.

Walt Disney Animation

Disney animation is doing what Pixar did in 2015, in putting out one film early in the year and a second in Thanksgiving. As it turns out, Disney animation may have a leg up on Pixar for once, since Zootopia may have fallen only a little bit short of Inside Out, but Moana looks likely to exceed The Good Dinosaur in a few ways.

Tangled, Wreck-it Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6 and now Zootopia and Moana have given the traditional Disney animated studio the makings of a third Golden Age. It also makes it a little easier for Disney to coast with remakes, superhero films and new Star Wars franchises, although those branches aren’t truly coasting either.

With five blockbusters already out and two to go, Disney has had virtually no real speedbumps in 2016. Even the movies that weren’t blockbusters have had their fans, as Pete’s Dragon and Queen of Katwe received a lot of raves, despite not building up enough box office word of mouth. And while The BFG might well have been the biggest financial flop of the summer, the movie itself truly didn’t deserve that kind of stigma.

There has only been one true flop for Disney in 2016, and that is Alice Through the Looking Glass. With a $77 million domestic gross overall, it made almost $40 million less than Alice in Wonderland did in its opening weekend alone. Between that, bad reviews and how longtime Disney cash cow Johnny Depp was revealed as an alleged domestic abuser, this one film had almost all of Disney’s bad 2016 movie headlines.

Depp may keep being a problem for 2017, with the seemingly even more unnecessary Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales out next May. If that tanks, Disney should hope it has the overall schedule to withstand one bad and pointless late May release for the second year in a row.

Walt Disney Pictures

The studio does have Beauty and the Beast, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Cars 3, Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Coco and Star Wars: Episode VIII for the rest of 2017. But 2016 gave Disney so many popular and profitable blockbusters, the bar may have been set too high, as this is already a year where Disney set box office records before Moana and Rogue One showed up.

Many more subpar movies and franchises have proven that box office doesn’t automatically mean quality. Still, it can’t be ignored that four out of the top 12 grossing movies in Disney history all came out this year, and that they were all helped by big word of mouth in some way, with two more examples perhaps still to come.

Yet what goes up must still come down at some point, even for Disney. It didn’t look like Disney would ever slow down in the early-to-mid-90s, but that creative Renaissance eventually ended everywhere but at Pixar. Currently, the MCU and Star Wars alone look way too big to fail, although even superhero movies and Star Wars films have had their bubbles burst for a while.

However, if Disney has films like Zootopia, Civil War, Jungle Book, Finding Dory and more out in the next year or two, that bubble isn’t bursting any time soon.

Walt Disney Animation

Tags: Moana (2016), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Zootopia (2016), Finding Dory (2016), The Jungle Book (2016), Doctor Strange (2016)
About the Author
Robert Dougherty is a longtime online freelance writer, who wrote reviews, articles & editorials on movies/TV for several years on the now defunct Yahoo Voices.
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