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The Not-So-Strange Reason Why Strange World Flopped

Strange world from Disney

Back in August, I wrote a blog titled “Summer’s Numbers Don’t Lie: We’re Not Interested in Agendas.” Well, the winter box office has put an exclamation point on that assertion. And if you look closely, its name is Strange World.

With two weekends under its belt, Disney’s expected blockbuster has been a bust. The animated tale earned just $18.9 million during the five-day Thanksgiving weekend—traditionally one of the box office’s biggest frames. (For comparison, Frozen II earned $125 million during the same Thanksgiving timeframe in 2019.) And if Disney thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. Strange World lost 60% of its audience in its second weekend and collected just $5.1 million.

Keep in mind, animated family movies—especially Disney animated movies—historically boast a longer shelf life than their live-action peers. But Strange World looks like it’s already past its sell-by date.

All told, Strange World has earned just $25.7 million in North America and $42.5 million total worldwide. That’s the worst performance by a Disney animated movie since 2011’s Winnie the Pooh. But here’s the kicker: Pooh was always a low-profile affair, with production costs around $30 million. Strange World’s budget has been estimated at anywhere from $130 million to $180 million. Movieweb called it “one of the biggest animated box office bombs in Disney history.”

Just a few months ago, Pixar/Disney’s Lightyear was considered a massive Mouse House dud. Strange World said, “Hold my juice box.”

Why the poor performance? Experts offer loads of reasons, from a poor marketing push to Disney’s historical troubles with animated sci-fi flicks to the struggles of animated films in general.

But clearly animated movies can still make a buck at the box office. Minions: The Rise of Gru earned nearly $370 million domestically. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 made $190.8 million. Both are comfortably in the top 10 for the year. Even the underperforming Lightyear still managed to make $118.3 million in North America.

And while certainly many factors play into Strange World’s disappointing performance, let me add another: Strange World was one of the most agenda-driven movies of the year. It came not to primarily entertain, but to preach—pounding home a secular gospel from its theatrical pulpit. In this era of issues-oriented filmmaking, Disney seemed determined to stress its culturally progressive bona fides, from its obvious environmental underpinnings to its narratively awkward inclusion of an LGBT teen.

Obviously, Disney narrows its potential audience through such decisions. Many Plugged In readers, I’m sure, avoided Strange World for its obvious issues. But that doesn’t completely explain Strange World’s failure at the box office. Secular moviegoers didn’t go, either. And I think it’s as much about presentation as it is about content.

Most of us go to movies to escape the day’s issues, not to be bombarded with them. That may be especially true in a movie like Strange World, which would seem to promise a fantastical vacation to, well, a strange world—one unfamiliar from our own. The fact that the vibe of Strange World was meant to echo the escapist fare of pulp magazines from the 1920s and ‘30s makes its issues-oriented activism all the more jarring.

Certainly, fantasy can come with a message. We’ll likely be treated to another environmental fable with Avatar: The Way of Water. But storytellers should always be mindful that, first and foremost, they’re telling a story—spinning a yarn around a digital campfire that we want to follow to the end.

Disney is historically one of culture’s best storytellers. My childhood memory banks are full of unforgettable Disney tales told in imaginative, often incredible ways. But lately, in its animated efforts at least, it seems that the Mouse House has forgotten what people come to movies for.

Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

36 Responses

  1. -Not a lot of people outside the conservative media bubble even knew the movie had a gay character, so I wouldn’t blame the movie’s failure on that. It’s the latest in a long line of original Disney sci-fi/adventure clocks that have flopped (remember Treasure Planet?). It was weakly promoted with no emphasis on appealing or cute characters. It didn’t have a strong female lead who would appeal to the princess demographic. It didn’t have a catchy viral song. It wasn’t part of an established franchise. Audience word-of-mouth was bad. And it was released at a time when people know they’ll only have to wait a few weeks to watch it on Disney+.

    1. -I was going to take my boys to watch it. Once I saw the agenda I passed. Same for my neighbors. There’s more of us than you think. I prefer to teach those lessons, instead of letting Disney do it for me.

  2. -This is inaccurate. It flopped because they didn’t promote it. People all over the Internet are talking about how they never heard of the movie’s existence before articles started coming out about how it was flopping. You can’t blame this on an agenda – no one knew anything about said agenda because the movie was not being advertised. Missed the mark here.

    1. -Wrong, it flopped because Disney is focusing on their own agenda, not what the audience wants to see. I agree that a good majority of movie goerers want to escape the politics and underlying agendas of our world, not so with this film. Besides its been out long enough now that people know of it, but yet ticket sales are falling fast.

      1. Disney did not promote the film. They continue to not promote it. Few know about its LGBT character except those in dim corners of the internet who are arguing about it, because Disney is not pushing this “agenda” in their promotion, because they are not promoting it. That’s all. Sorry, but you’re wrong, full stop.

        1. -Harolded, a lot of people knew about this movie. My neighbors and family members passed on taking their kids because of the LGBTQ agenda that Disney is promoting. I know people who walked out of the movie once they discovered what it was about. The more Disney produces these woke movies, the more they will flop. Disney needs to get back to hiring artists rather than woke activists. Studies show that word-of-mouth is even more effective than paid ads!

          1. The movie is not “about” that. Having seen it, that plotline is a very small part of its runtime and plays virtually no role in the film. It’s a few throwaway lines in two scenes. If your friend had actually stayed in the theater, they would know that. I have no patience for bigotry and I especially have no patience for uninformed bigotry.

        2. – Batgirl never hit the box office… They never released it because it was reviewed so poorly by test audiences that the studio realized it was better to never release it so they could use the money spent as a loss.
          Disney is in a different situation here as they have released their movie. There are many things that can make a movie flop and I haven’t seen the Strange World movie, so I won’t speculate, but I do think that they may be trying to drive the movie theaters out of business with Disney plus. The commission the theater gets increases the longer a movie is shown in the theater so moving things quickly to Disney plus really hurts my favorite, local theater that attracts a lot of families with kids.

  3. -Actually you can blame it on the agenda because now people have had a week to go see it and they didn’t.

    1. -If they didn’t go to see it, how do they know its agenda? Most people haven’t heard of it, and of people I know who did, they’re waiting to see it on Disney+.

      And that’s the real reason. Not this low functioning anti-woke garbage that people with two functioning neurons keep spewing. Most people don’t go clutching their pearls because there’s a gay person or a mixed race couple or any of the other nonsense that pearl clutchers are having temper tantrums over. And the only time I’d heard about that content in the movie is from… well, this article.

      It’s because unless there’s a compelling reason to see something on the big screen, people are going to wait to stream it at home, and due to a lack of marketing and the setting / genre of the movie, it’s not a “must see in theaters” type of movie. Disney+ is going to take the wind out of A LOT of movies that in the past would have done better, simply because there’s nothing compelling enough to get people to theaters over the convenience and fact they’re already paying for Disney+.

      1. -Mixed race couples?! Welcome back to the 50’s. I have never heard a negative comment about mixed race marriages. I have seen old movies with that theme but never first hand. I have been in a “mixed race” marriage since 1994.

  4. There’s no such thing as a film “without an agenda” – when people say that a “film has an agenda,” what they mean is “this film has an agenda that I don’t agree with.”

    It’s ironic to see this site praise lackluster Christian productions (or lower the creative bar) because the movie “has a good message” and not see that as “agenda-based filmmaking.” And yet when those films bomb (critically and commercially), you don’t see Plugged In “blaming the agenda.”

    Additionally, every Hollywood production has one overriding agenda: To make money.

    1. -Aside fromt the money making agenda, what was the agenda of American Pie, Caddyshack, Porkies, LOTR and star wars?

      1. -Maybe could answer that; I admit I have not seen the first three, but I know of AP and Porkies by reputation, so I would suspect that based on their genre and content, being raunchy teen sex comedies, that they probably promote the “agenda” or “world view” that teens actively engaging in sexual behavior is “normal” “natural” and something good to be celebrated as healthy, or at least to be thought of as “no big deal” and not something to be avoided or ashamed of. Which most conservatives would have a problem with.

        LOTR and Star Wars both share similar elements of Good vs Evil storytelling, and promote many general moral ideas; the nobility of fighting against oppression and for freedom, of fighting for the people you love and care about, or even self sacrifice. Star Wars contains elements of faith (The Force will be with you) but in a more mystic fantastical sense, and the idea that love can redeem, such as the case of Darth Vader. LOTR has elements that flow from a christian world view too, such as the tempting, corrupting evil of the one ring, that can never be used as a tool for good because it was created by evil and for evil, or the idea of the most humble of people (the hobbits) being the ones who are ultimately pivotal in the Dark Lord’s defeat, because they are so overlooked. There was also definitely an element of environmentalism in Tolkien’s writings, with the contrast of the dark “industrial” orcs and armies of Sauron and the wastelands of Mordor compared to the beauty of the Shire and other parts of middle earth.

        Every movie has a world view, every movie has a moral compass, whether its spelled out explicitly or implied through the world building and actions of the characters, or themes, or story events, or whatever. Every movie believes “something”, and usually wants to impart that to its audience, whether subtly or directly.

        1. -Additionally, many movies can be a director’s personal perspective of an issue found in a book with a different perspective or which didn’t raise the issue.

    2. -Good points. It comes down to whether you evaluate movies based on their artistic merit, their moral perspective, or their financial success. I prioritize the first and PI prioritizes the second, which is perfectly legitimate because it’s a site aimed at parents. The problem comes when you start correlating one with another and saying “This movie failed commercially because it’s not consistent with my morals” or “This movie is good because it’s consistent with my morals.”

    3. -It’s more about an agenda that butts against culturally accepted norms and the fact that the film tries to illustrate it as normal. I knew nothing of the agenda in the film and me and my wife took our daughter to see the film. We are a mixed race couple with a bi-racial daughter and my wife’s best friend is gay. My wife is an Ambassador for Diversity and inclusion for her worldwide company. But on top of the movie being absolutely snooze-worthy and pointless, the level of which they push the agenda was absolutely overstated and gag-worthy. A bi-racial couple with bi-racial gay teen male and even a 3-legged dog?!?! They even made sure that their group of friends would accurately represent all the races, sexes and sexualities of the world. Al these characters come together to save the world from the power source that is killing the planet!!! Come on now! Had they spend a little more time on actually developing a story that made sense and resulted in a climax that was an actual feel good moment rather than empty question mark and spent a little less time on making sure no one felt left out, they might have had a good movie.

  5. -Interesting reading, and I thank you all for such thoughtful comments. But I did want to address a point I was hoping to make that may have been missed.

    Joe says that “there’s no such thing as a film without an agenda,” and I’d agree with that. He points out, rightly, that Christian films have an obvious agenda. I’d even go farther: Some Christian films focus on that agenda at the expense of the story, which can weaken the final product and limit its ability to find a wider audience. Much, as I’d argue, was the case with Strange World.

    My argument isn’t that Strange World failed because it’s “not consistent with my morals”: I say in the blog that while certainly some shied away from the film because of the values it pushed, it hardly explains why the film was largely ignored by secular audiences, too. Rather, my argument is that when you elevate the movie’s messaging over storytelling—when you “preach” at an audience—it becomes a less effective story, and thus a less effective moneymaking vehicle.

    Now, whether that thesis holds is up for debate.

    Thanks again for your thoughts and interaction. Carry on!

    1. -“ its narratively awkward inclusion of an LGBT teen“

      Why can’t a character just be gay? Why does there have to be a reason in the story for it?

      To quote someone else, “Not every detail about every single character has to meaningfully progress the plot of a story. Plot is not the be-all end-all. Sometimes details are in there to flesh out a character and that’s it! And that’s a good thing! Because otherwise every character we ever encounter would be some cardboard cutout that is only there to be a cog in the Plot Machine to get you from Point A to B. “

    2. -Not only did they do a lousy job of marketing, honestly, who has the money right now to plop down 12 bucks per person and 15 bucks for pop corn?

  6. -Just as conservatives are unwilling to deduce cause and effect for climate changes, the left refuses to accept the central axiom of get woke, go broke. In the end in both cases the effects will continue regardless of how many rationalizations and excuses are generated.

    1. -They will continue is Disney wants to go bankrupt, more normal people in the world don’t want to watch woke junk…. As for Climate Change…. Liberals are dead set to change and wreck the US Economy when China and India Pollute 10X what the US does and will tell said Liberals to kick rocks….

      Literally trying to crush our economy when the biggest offenders are unrestricted and going full speed ahead, it’s a good way to get taken over quickly.

  7. -I had no idea about the agenda or the LGBT inclusion. I went to see this on the big screen because the few trailers I did see made it appear to be a visual feast. It was not as vibrant as the trailers portrayed and the preaching got in the way of the entertainment value.

  8. -About the stupidest article I’ve read. The movie flopped because Disney wanted it to flop. Anyone claiming any experience in the field knows what burying something is, and it’s clearly what happened here. The film had next to no advertisement. Take your biased journalism elsewhere

      1. It has happened many times before, lol. If you know anything about the entertainment industry, you know about this. It happens when a studio decides the finished product is not worth what it would cost to promote it. For recent examples, see what WB is doing with their canceled finished films such as Batgirl and Scoob 2.

        1. -Disney could release it directly on streaming without spending tens millions on promotion. Even silent release could cost a lot of cash that is why I don’t believe flopping was initial plan.

          1. – They are actually doing this. They just announced it will release in 10 days on streaming. Its theatrical window was very short and announcing that it will release in a short time on streaming essentially kills any remaining chances of box office success. I don’t think anyone can argue this wasn’t on purpose.

        2. – Batgirl never hit the box office… They never released it because it was reviewed so poorly by test audiences that the studio realized it was better to never release it so they could use the money spent as a loss. Disney is in a different situation here as they have released their movie. There are many things that can make a movie flop and I haven’t seen the Strange World movie, so I won’t speculate, but I do think that they may be trying to drive the movie theaters out of business with Disney plus. The commission the theater gets increases the longer a movie is shown in the theater so moving things quickly to Disney plus really hurts my favorite, local theater that attracts a lot of families with kids.

  9. -time to through in my two cents, and see if this comment will actually post. Had trouble recently

    First off two pet peeves; animation is not a genre ^_^, you can’t really say “well, Minions did well, so logically this other animated movie should have done well too” because they are still different movies with very different stories and presentation, even if both are animated. And also…Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was not an animated movie. It may have had quite a lot of CGI, but its still live action.

    I agree with Joe, and I’d also like to reply to Paul Asay’s comment. I would like to propose a hypothesis: that audience members are “more likely” to label a movie as “having an agenda” when it contains morals they do not agree with, regardless of the objective quality of the writing. After all, how often do people label a movie as being “preachy” or “pushing an agenda” when they actually agree with the message? I’m sure someone could do an actual scientific study of this kind of thing, it would be very interesting (not sure exactly how one would do it, but would be interested in hearing ideas, lol) but I wouldn’t be surprised if the data barred out that movies being labeled as “preachy” or “agenda driven” is far more about the audience’s subjectively held beliefs than about the objective quality of the writing and presentation of the movie (though of course it is also difficult to define objective quality in anything artistic, like story telling).

    I guess it’s all just opinion in the end of course, but honestly I do not agree that Strange World puts its “message above its storytelling” anymore than just about any other movie that exists. And I doubt people would have a problem if Ethan’s love interest was a girl instead of a boy. If the sex of his love interest were different, the story would still be exactly the same, but it would probably be received differently, so it seems clear that it’s not actually the quality of the writing within the film that is the problem, the mere presence of same sex attraction is received as “inherently” “pushy”. And when you compare the content in Strange World to stuff like “Better Nate Than Ever” or “Trevor: the Musical”, (both playing on Disney+)I don’t see how it even compares.

  10. -There are two types of agendas: visible agendas and hidden agendas.

    The problem with Strange World is that its two main agendas (environmentalism and LGBT inclusion) were hidden agendas. And the reason they were hidden agendas is because Disney did not want to risk losing millions of dollars by making those agendas visible. Only 7% of the United States population is LGBT, and I have no hard numbers on what percentage of the United States population cares about the environment. Whenever a story has a hidden agenda, people feel tricked and are much less likely to take your agenda seriously.

    So if I was a filmmaker, I would always be 100% transparent about the agendas of my films. I would only make documentaries because they are far less expensive to produce, and because I am not qualified to judge acting talent. If people are not interested in my agenda, if they see the advertising for my films and think “That’s not my problem”, or “Why should I care?” or “There’s no way that problem can be solved”, I don’t want them in my audience. Those who are interested in my agenda are those who are most likely to solve the problem I have drawn their attention to. Ignoring problems does not make them go away.

    There are many films with agendas that have made our world a better place. “The Towering Inferno” led to stricter building codes. “Super Size Me” led to fast food chains offering more fruits and salads, and to Americans walking more steps per day. And it’s not just true for films, but for books as well. “Unsafe At Any Speed” by Ralph Nader led to the creation of the United States Department Of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Adminstration. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe led to the abolishment of slavery.

    While lots of people go to the movies to escape, others go to engage. Now if making only documentaries means a smaller audience than the audience for the next fictional Marvel story, fine. I won’t have very much to lose. I know that I can’t please everyone, and I also know that I don’t really need to either. According to Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs, “A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players.”. If I have a cause and I can only attract 100 people to that cause, if those people are A+ people, I have a fighting chance.

    I have noticed that the vast majority of your movie and television reviews cover fictional material, and I have not seen a single review of a nonfiction book on your website. You should seriously consider reviewing the following documentary films:
    -Hoop Dreams
    -Born Into Brothels
    -Waiting For Superman

    And you should also consider reviewing the following TV series:
    -This Old House
    -Wild America
    -Modern Marvels

    Not all of these movies and TV series may be completely wholesome, but they all have visible agendas. Have a nice day.

  11. -I saw the commercials for this movie and said, “wow, that looks like an exact dupe of “The Croods.” My second reaction was, “it’s Disney. We’re not watching.” I assume their agenda will be written into all of their movies and shows moving forward, so we dropped Disney altogether.

  12. -Thank you to the people in the comments questioning whenever people try to say “this movie failed because it pushes an LGBT ‘agenda.'” I don’t consider myself affirming, per se (but that entire argument, for good or for ill, hinges on ancient word meanings in languages and cultural contexts I doubt most of the naysayers are fluent in).

    If this movie and Lightyear (the latter of which I just didn’t think was very good) had failed [in the U.S.] because of LGBT inclusion, they would have logically done much better outside the U.S. where right-wing evangelical politics and socially acceptable homophobia are not as common. (I would love to see more discussions of how to prevent violence and hatred toward the LGBT community instead of discussions of whether or not XYZ movie flopped because of a gay kiss, because the former is infinitely more important for us to respect the image of God in all human beings.)

  13. -What might be even worst for Disney is not that Strange World (and Lightyear to some extent) flopped, it’s that after two progressive agenda-driven (“woke” if you prefer) films this year, their core audience (families that love good wholesome stories–don’t try to preach to us, please–families with lots of kids) no longer trusts Disney. Indeed, these parents feel like Disney was trying to pull one over on them, not once, but twice now. And once lost, trust is very difficult to win back, especially when you’re talking about kids, about whom parents are very protective, especially parents in Disney’s core target audience.

  14. -Seen some speculation about the movie’s failure to the extent that, the reason Disney barely marketed the movie at all, or released much merchandise for it, is because they anticipated that it would be banned in a lot of the more conservative international markets like China and the middle east, and so it wasn’t worth spending a bunch of ad money on.