Universal and Illuminations latest animated film centers on a family of ducks who decides to leave the safety of a New England pond for an adventurous trip to Jamaica. However, their well-laid plans quickly go awry when they get lost and wind up in New York City.
Disney dropped the animation crown. Universal has picked it up.
And, with “Migration” opening Friday, the studio is looking to strengthen its grip.
“Migration,” a comic tale about a family of New England ducks that leave their pond for Jamaica, but end up in New York City, is expected to tally $25 million during its domestic debut. Universal has more conservative expectations, forecasting between $10 million and $15 million in ticket sales for the film’s opening.
While that pales in comparison to the $100 million-plus debuts of Universal’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” and the latest “Minions” film, it’s comparable to the studio’s “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” which ran in theaters for several months, securing nearly $500 million globally.
“‘Migration,’ with solid word-of-mouth and strong reviews, will have to be judged more on its long-term results than the opening weekend splash,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.
Disney’s most recent animated film “Wish” failed to connect with audiences. After generating $31.6 million domestically over the five-day Thanksgiving holiday, the film has grossed a total of $55.2 million in the U.S. and Canada. Globally, the film has reached $127.1 million. The film had a budget of $200 million, not including marketing costs.
For comparison, “Trolls Band Together,” which was released the week before Thanksgiving, secured $30 million for its three-day debut and nearly $180 million worldwide. The film had a budget of $95 million, not including marketing costs.
Representatives from Disney did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
How Disney lost the crown
Ariana DeBose stars as Asha in Disney’s new animated film “Wish.”
Disney established its animated feature empire in the early 20th century with 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and continued to dominate, more or less, into the 1980s and 1990s with “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
Later, it acquired Pixar, which together with Walt Disney Animation, generated billions in box-office receipts for the company.
“The world of feature animation has been dominated for decades by Disney and for good reason,” said Dergarabedian. “They set the gold standard.”
Then came the Covid pandemic. While theaters closed, Disney sought to pad its fledgling streaming service Disney+ with content, stretching its creative teams thin, and sending theatrical movies during the pandemic straight to digital.
The decision trained parents to seek out new Disney titles on streaming, not theaters, even when Disney opted to return its films to the big screen. Compounding Disney’s woes was a general sense from audiences that the company’s content had grown overly existential and too concerned with social issues beyond the reach of children.
As a result, no Disney animated feature from Pixar or Walt Disney Animation has generated more than $480 million at the global box office since 2019.
“I think what’s changed is that Disney doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt,” said Josh Brown, CEO at Ritholtz Wealth Management and a CNBC contributor. “And people will not go to a movie just because it’s the latest Disney movie in the way that previous generations did.”
Meanwhile, Universal’s two animation arms — Illumination and DreamWorks — have thrived.
“Minions: The Rise of Gru,” which opened in 2022, tallied $942 million worldwide, “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” capped at $485 million after its holiday 2022 opening and “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” soared to more than $1.3 billion in 2023.
Even the Magic Kingdom was impressed with the box office of “Super Mario.” Disney CEO Bob Iger praised the rival studio back in May during the company’s fiscal second-quarter earnings call.
But as moviegoers have returned to cinemas in the wake of the pandemic, more are gravitating toward Universal’s fare.
“Simply put, Illumination Animation’s only agenda is entertainment,” said Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “Their animated films are sweet and simple and family audiences appreciate that. Disney sometimes attempts to pack too much into their animated features, and lately have been losing sight of the simplicity of the genre.”
Not to mention, Universal has been revisiting tried and true fan-favorite stories and characters. In fact, Illumination hasn’t released a nonfranchise film since 2016, and only three of the last 10 DreamWorks features have been original stories.
For comparison, of the last eight films released by a Disney animation studio, seven have been original films with just 2022’s “Lightyear,” a “Toy Story” spinoff, tied to an existing franchise. Previously, Disney has thrived bringing new animated material to audiences, but in the post-pandemic world, it has struggled.
It is the exact opposite strategy of Disney’s live-action theatrical releases, which have relied heavily on established franchises. Think “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” “The Little Mermaid,” Marvel franchise films and “Haunted Mansion.”
Iger has said that Disney will continue to make sequels, without apology, but admitted that the company needs to be more selective in which franchises it revisits.
“I think there has to be a reason to make them, you have to have a good story,” Iger said during The New York Times’ DealBook Summit in late November.
“Minions: The Rise of Gru” is the sequel to the 2015 film, “Minions,” and spin-off/prequel to the main “Despicable Me” film series.
In animation, returning to popular characters and worlds is an easy way to capture the attention of parents and kids.
“Because they have seen these characters and related stories before, they have high confidence that they will be high quality, entertaining and ‘brand safe’ for their kids,” said Peter Csathy, founder and chair of advisory firm Creative Media. “And they may even anticipate franchise animated films as much as their kids.”
In developing consistent franchise content like Minions and Trolls, Universal is now able to introduce a new film like “Migration” with a sense of clout. Parents who see that the film is from the same studio that brought other fan favorites to the big screen are then more likely to come out to see it.
It’s what Pixar was able to do so well for nearly three decades.
“With ‘Minions,’ ‘Secret Life of Pets’ and ‘Sing,’ I think Illumination is a brand people are aware of by now,” said Bock. “And that awareness will boost ‘Migration’s’ flight pattern, likely extending its box-office run. That’s key. The long play.”
So far, “Migration” has generally favorable reviews from critics. If audiences respond well, and spread the word, the film could see a solid run, adding to the prestige of Universal’s animation brand.
“The kids animation market opportunity will never grow old, so those playing at the top of the game – as is Illumination – hold the promise and possibility of becoming the next go-to brand for quality animation after Pixar,” said Csathy.
Next year, Disney and Pixar are set to release “Inside Out 2” in June, while Universal and Illumination’s “Despicable Me 4” is scheduled to hit theaters weeks later in July.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of Universal Pictures and CNBC.
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