Features and Columns · Movies

Operation ‘Dumbo’ Flop

Disney’s latest live-action remake underperformed in its opening weekend.
Dumbo And Kids
By  · Published on April 1st, 2019

Disney’s latest live-action remake took flight at the box office over the weekend, but the movie didn’t quite soar domestically. Dumbo, the adaptation and continuation of the studio’s 1941 animated classic, topped the charts for sure but flew under industry expectations. With an opening-weekend audience of about 5.1 million people, it’s not the worst dive taken by Disney’s current reimagining trend, but it’s one of the lowest debuts and well below such success as Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book, and Beauty and the Beast.

There’s some irony to the disappointment of Dumbo considering the financial significance of the original. The cheaply made medium-length feature was the most successful of Disney’s 1940s movies and was a welcome hit following the failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia, proving that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs wasn’t a fluke. Dumbo is hardly a flop, though, even if it cost a reported $170 million and only grossed $45 million to start in North America, if only because internationally the movie is posting a global take so far of $116 million and will eventually land on top.

Here’s a look at Disney’s live-action remakes by first-weekend ticket sales:

1. Beauty and the Beast (2017): 19.8 million
2. Alice in Wonderland (2010): 14.6 million
3. The Jungle Book (2016): 11.8 million
4. Cinderella (2015): 8.4 million
5. Maleficent (2014): 8.3 million
6. 101 Dalmatians (1996): 7.6 million
7. Dumbo (2019): 5.1 million
8. Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016): 3.1 million
9. Christopher Robin (2018): 2.8 million
10. Pete’s Dragon (2016): 2.5 million

The Tim Burton-helmed redo was never going to reach the heights of the CG marvel that is The Jungle Book or the nostalgia-heavy re-creation that is Beauty and the Beast, and Dumbo‘s prospects were always on the lower side of this trend’s range. Two months ago, Box Office Pro forecast the gross as an equivalent of 6.5 million. Last week, their tracking range was about the same, as they predicted 6.6 million tickets sold for the flying elephant picture. Even with the bigger crowd, Dumbo would take seventh place for these movies.

Why it fell short would seem easy to answer. There’s little joy to this darker version of Dumbo with its lack of compelling characters and its odd narrative that seems to make a Walt Disney figure and Disneyland type destination spots the enemy. Still, audiences couldn’t have been too put off by the negative reviews. These remakes have been all over the board with their Rotten Tomatoes scores and they don’t correlate that well with the box office. Alice in Wonderland got terrible reviews and was a huge hit; Pete’s Dragon was highly acclaimed but couldn’t draw a decent crowd.

Meanwhile, its ‘A-‘ grade from first-night moviegoers polled by CinemaScore seems fine enough, except when you realize that all others in this group earned an ‘A’ except the Burton-helmed Alice in Wonderland and Burton-produced Alice Through the Looking Glass. So maybe it’s just a Burton thing? He made Disney a lot of money with his first Alice movie, so the studio can’t fault him too much for this or the Alice sequel bombing, even internationally by the franchise’s own standards.

Also, surprisingly, Dumbo had one of the director’s better wide-release debuts, especially for his later works, and his highest opening-weekend attendance since the first Alice. Take a look:

1. Alice in Wonderland (2010): 14.6 million
2. Planet of the Apes (2001): 12.1 million
3. Batman Returns (1992): 11 million
4. Batman (1989): 10.2 million
5. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005): 8.8 million
6. Sleepy Hollow (1999): 5.9 million
7. Dumbo (2019): 5.1 million
8. Big Fish (2003): 3.8 million (wide release)
9. Dark Shadows (2012): 3.7 million
10. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016): 3.3 million
11. Corpse Bride (2005): 3.1 million (wide release)
12. Mars Attacks! (1996): 2.1 million
13. Beetlejuice (1988): 2 million
14. Edward Scissorhands (1991): 1.6 million (wide release)
15. Frankenweenie (2012): 1.42 million
16. Sweeney Todd (2007): 1.35 million
17. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985): 1.28 million
18. Ed Wood (1994): 0.6 million (semi-wide release)
19. Big Eyes (2014): 0.4 million

Disney may not be off oto a great start with its live-action remakes this year, but arriving on the heels of Dumbo are a bunch of safer bets. Aladdin may not look great, but being based on a more recent animated classic will prove more lucrative. Then The Lion King will probably have the biggest opening yet for this trend. The Maleficent sequel will probably do pretty well, too, maybe not as big as the first but certainly not as bad as the second Alice movie. There’s no reason for the studio to be rethinking these reimaginings as a whole, though they should focus more on their quality, their marketing, and especially their kid-friendliness.

In other box office news this week, the anti-abortion feature Unplanned gave Pure Flix their second-best opening ever with nearly 700,000 tickets sold, which is far better than it was tracking for (310,000), though compared to other Christian films it fell far below such star-studded, studio-back movies as Heaven is For Real, Miracles in Heaven, and I Can Only Imagine. As for Harmony Korine‘s The Beach Bum, it was no Spring Breakers and even fell short of its forecast attendance by at least 50,000 tickets. And Jordan Peele‘s Us is proving to be no Get Out with its second-weekend drop of 53 percent.

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

1. Dumbo – 5.1 million (5.1 million)
2. Us – 3.7 million (14.2 million)
3. Captain Marvel – 2.3 million (39.2 million)
4. Unplanned – 0.71 million (0.7 million)
5. Five Feet Apart – 0.69 million (4 million)
6. Wonder Park – 0.55 million (4.2 million)
7. How to Train Your Dragon 3 – 0.5 million (17 million)
8. Hotel Mumbai – 0.4 million (0.4 million)
9. A Madea Family Funeral – 0.3 million (7.8 million)
10. The Beach Bum – 0.2 million (0.2 million)

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

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.