Winnie the Pooh and the Modest Opening Weekends

Christopher Robin Hundred Acre Wood Gang

‘Christopher Robin’ was never going to be a big moneymaker for Disney.

Where are all the Winnie the Pooh fans? The character and his friends at the Hundred Acre Wood have been a licensing success for Disney for more than 50 years, but Pooh Bear has never been a real cash cow at the box office. So, while Christopher Robin may seem like a disappointment for the studio as the poorest-performing entry of the studio’s “live-action remake” slate, the relatively low turnout was to be expected.

Christopher Robin‘s opening weekend attendance is estimated at 2.7 million people, according to Box Office Mojo. Compare that to other big Disney live-action reimaginings: Alice in Wonderland (14.6 million), Maleficent (8.3 million), Cinderella (8.4 million), The Jungle Book (11.8 million), and Beauty and the Beast (19.8 million). Even the surprisingly underperforming Alice sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, drew 3.1 million fans.

If we also include the similarly more natural and folksy and indie-film-influenced Pete’s Dragon remake, Christopher Robin did sell a bit more tickets in its debut versus that movie’s 2.5 million. And we could count The Sorcerer’s Apprentice among the pack given its inspiration coming from the animated feature Fantasia. That one only sold 2.3 million tickets domestically during its opening weekend. It was a big hit overseas, however.

Fortunately, Christopher Robin, which is a live-action sequel to all of Disney’s animated Winnie the Pooh offerings, cost a lot less than its peers. Reportedly, the movie’s budget was likely a more modest $75 million, similar to that of Pete’s Dragon. Disney may have been aware of Christopher Robin‘s lesser appeal. But shouldn’t Winnie the Pooh be more popular at the movies? You’d think so, but the willy nilly silly old bear just isn’t a big box office draw.

Winne the Pooh’s success on the big screen is difficult to track in its early years. The first Disney releases involving the Hundred Acre Wood gang were shorts attached to other movies. Not huge hits either. Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree screened with The Ugly Dachshund, which wasn’t even one of Disney’s most popular live-action offerings of 1966. The Oscar-winning Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day was with The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit in 1968. Ever heard of that one? In 1974, the Oscar-nominated Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too accompanied The Island at the Top of the World, which was just a bit more successful at the box office.

The first Pooh feature, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, was essentially just a compilation of the three shorts with an added ending based on the last A.A. Milne story (also adapted for the opening of Christopher Robin). It too was released alongside another Disney live-action feature, The Littlest Horse Thieves (aka Escape from the Dark). It’s difficult to find exact figures, but according to IMDb, it seems to have at least done much less business than Disney’s other 1977 animated feature, The Rescuers, and their original Pete’s Dragon, as well as fellow non-Disney animated features Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown and Wizards.

Two more shorts arrived in the early 1980s. The educational effort Winnie the Pooh Discovers the Seasons was apparently released to schools rather than theaters in the fall of 1981. Then 1983’s Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore hit the big screen attached to the re-release of The Sword in the Stone, which did okay business for a reissue, selling about 3.8 million tickets but wasn’t quite as popular as the same year’s re-releases of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (9.6 million tickets) and The Rescuers (6.4 million tickets).

Around that time, Winnie the Pooh and friends became fixures on TV, starting with the live-action Disney Channel show Welcome to Pooh Corner and then the Saturday morning cartoon The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Kids raised on those series weren’t quite old enough for nostalgia bait, though, when Disney started making more Pooh movies. The Tigger Movie opened in fourth place in 2000, behind fellow new family film release Snow Day, to the tune of just 1.7 million tickets sold.

Three years later, Disney gave Piglet his shot with Piglet’s Big Movie. He drew even fewer fans than Tigger, selling just only one million tickets in the film’s debut, for which it placed seventh at the box office for the weekend. Next was Pooh’s Heffalump Movie in 2005. It came in fifth place during its opening weekend, selling less than a million tickets. The studio waited a little while before putting out another. The hiatus didn’t help, as 2011’s Winnie the Pooh was another disappointment, again drawing in fewer than a million people over its opening weekend.

Perhaps we have just been inundated with Winnie the Pooh content for long enough — there were also the 1990s holiday specials and a plethora of direct-to-video features in the 2000s — or maybe all the home video material has sufficiently catered families with small children, who tend to be the main target fanbase for the Pooh IP. Either way, there’s not as much interest in these characters as far as the costly theatrical experience is concerned. Still, Christopher Robin‘s debut is the property’s best box office performer yet, by a lot.

As with Pete’s Dragon, the proper audience for Christopher Robin is nevertheless uncertain. The new movie, while fine for children, isn’t really appealing to them. The youngest moviegoers who love Pooh storybooks and other nursery merchandise want animated characters, not the too-realistic, faded-looking talking stuffed animals of Christopher Robin, especially in a story focused on a grown-up version of the title character.

Target audience should be tied to the POV of the protagonist. Christopher Robin is about an adult, one who has long put his childish things behind him but now revisits them with a low amount of nostalgia. The movie is best appreciated by adults who loved Winnie the Pooh as a child and haven’t watched him in a while and, like Christopher Robin, are gradually warming to their charms again.

Last year’s Milne biopic, Goodbye Christopher Robin, didn’t even sell a quarter-million tickets, so Disney probably expected the grown-up crowd to have little interest in Pooh-related drama for adults. Surprisingly, the studio didn’t find it necessary to change the name to maybe “Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin Too” or something similarly distanced from Fox’s movie and/or something more easily marketable as a Pooh joint.

There’s no reason Christopher Robin should have been tracking for a $31.5 million weekend, as Box Office Pro reported (that was up from their long-range forecast of $30 million back in early June). Certainly not with its unfortunately mixed reviews. The reality of a $25 million debut was and is just fine a figure for the movie given Pooh’s box office history. Maybe its ‘A’ grade via CinemaScore polling (an improvement from Winnie the Pooh‘s ‘A-‘ grade) will mean some word-of-mouth success, but that’s not guaranteed.

One thing is for sure: the underperformance of Christopher Robin will not be a cause for Disney to worry about the chances of Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King, Mulan, and the rest of the live-action reworkings of their animated classics. Unlike Pooh movies, the original versions of all those upcoming productions were humongous hits. And the wonderful thing about the Pooh brand is it will continue to bring Disney big money in all its other non-theatrical-movie forms.

Here are the past weekend’s top 10 titles by the number of tickets sold with new titles in bold and totals in parentheses:

1. Mission: Impossible – Fallout – 3.7 million (13.3 million)
2. Christopher Robin – 2.7 million (2.7 milllion)
3. The Spy Who Dumped Me – 1.3 million (1.3 million)
4. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again – 1 million (9.7 million)
5. The Equalizer 2 – 0.94 million (8.5 million)
6. Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation – 0.87 million (14.5 million)
7. Ant-Man and the Wasp – 0.7 million (20.8 million)
8. The Darkest Minds – 0.6 million (0.6 million)
9. Incredibles 2 – 0.53 million (62.2 million)
10. Teen Titans Go! To the Movies – 0.52 million (2.2 million)

All non-forecast box office figures via Box Office Mojo.

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Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.