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‘The Lion King’ Had the Biggest Box Office Opening Ever for an Animated Movie

Disney’s latest live-action style reimagining also had the best opening ever for a non-sequel.
Lion King Live Action Style Cartoon
By  · Published on July 21st, 2019

Disney can keep on remaking their animated classics because audiences keep on eating them up. The Lion King topped the box office over the weekend, selling a record-breaking 21.3 million tickets over its first three days (plus Thursday previews). That’s not only Disney’s best ever for their live-action-style reimaginings (2017’s Beauty and Beast previously held the record with 19.8 million) but also the best debut for an animated feature — The Lion King is entirely a computer-generated animation — beating last year’s Incredibles 2, which opened to an audience of 19.5 million.

The studio has already had plenty of reasons to feel good about this trend this year. Dumbo may have opened with only a quarter of the audience that The Lion King managed, but it’s still playing in theaters and has made enough overseas to not be a total flop. And Aladdin debuted with half the audience of The Lion King yet has had great legs, in domestic and foreign release, with a worldwide total nearing a billion dollars. All three of this year’s remakes have received mixed to negative reviews but appealed enough to audiences to garner high marks via CinemaScore polling.

That’s right folks, the mainstream moviegoers wanted to see photorealistic versions of Simba and the rest singing their songs in less inventive ways and they were happy with what they got. I can tell you this: Disney is going to be thinking twice about diverting too much with these remakes given that The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast are the closest to scene-for-scene replicas. We’ll just have to see how well Maleficent 2 does this fall, though. Otherwise, Disney may have something to worry about with Mulan coming around the corner in March 2020.

The question is whether or not the new version of The Lion King  (which underperformed by Box Office Pro’s long-range expectations but not their week-of forecast) will be able to outsell the original. The 1994 feature is still the reigning champion of animation, selling 74.6 million tickets during its eight-month run through the beginning of 1995 (the movie sold another 2.6 million tickets during a 2002 IMAX rerelease and then another 11.9 million tickets during the 2011 3D rerelease for a total of 89.1 million). After that, Shrek 2 drew in 71.1 million people in 2004 and Incredibles 2 placed third with its theatrical run last year, to the tune of 66.3 million. If the new version of The Lion King just barely opened better than that Pixar sequel, then it may not finish much higher, if higher.

The global box office is another matter. The Lion King placed 47th for worldwide openings with a $246 million gross, way behind the live-action Beauty and the Beast (19th with $357 million) but a smidgen higher than recent (previous record-holding) animated feature Toy Story 4 (48th with $244.5 million). But The Lion King‘s worldwide opening was complicated by its debuting earlier in China. The movie has actually already grossed $531 million, making it more like one of the top five all-time global debuts. We’ll see how and where it goes over the next few months.

Outside of the arguable animated feature opening record, The Lion King‘s greatest feat so far is probably its achievement of having the best domestic debut for a non-sequel. It’s not an original movie, but at 12th place on the opening weekend attendance chart, it’s the first movie not to be a follow-up to another movie or installment of a mega-franchise, as Marvel Cinematic Universe entries The Avengers and Black Panther are. Disney has 10 of the top 15 titles, but the others are part of the Star Wars, MCU, or Pirates of the Caribbean series.

Disney has also now essentially had the six best openings of 2019 — technically only five of them since Spider-Man: Far From Home is a Sony release even if it’s a Disney-owned Marvel Studios production. The Lion King‘s debut is second best of the year, behind Avengers: Endgame. After only one weekend, the remake is also already the sixth-highest-grossing domestic release of 2019 but will likely wind up second for the year, at least for a while — before Disney’s own Star Wars; Rise of the Skywalker arrives in December.

Speaking of Avengers: Endgame, in other box office news, the Marvel blockbuster has superficially topped Avatar for the all-time record for highest worldwide gross with $2.7902 billion versus the James Cameron movie’s $2.7897 billion. Of course, as I’ve addressed in the past, there’s no way to account for inflation or estimate actual attendance with the global figures, but you can adapt the worldwide gross based on at least the domestic portion’s inflated figures. Doing that, Avatar is still in first place with $2.893 billion. And that’s not even including its rerelease numbers, which push it over to 2.906 billion.

Here are the weekend’s top 12 domestic release titles by the estimated number of tickets sold with new and newly wide titles in bold and totals in parentheses:

1. The Lion King – 21.3 million (21.3 million)
2. Spider-Man: Far From Home – 2.4 million (35.5 million)
3. Toy Story 4 – 1.7 million (41.8 million)
4. Crawl – 0.7 million (2.7 million)
5. Yesterday – 0.6 million (6.4 million)
6. Stuber – 0.46 million (1.8 million)
7. Aladdin – 0.45 million (37.8 million)
8. Annabelle Comes Home – 0.3 million (7.4 million)
9. Midsommar – 0.18 million (2.5 million)
10. The Secret Life of Pets 2 – 0.17 million (16.8 million)
11. Avengers: Endgame – 0.168 million (94.8 million)
12. The Farewell – 0.13 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.