“Flop” is a relative term. Third Man on the Mountain was made in 1959 for about two million dollars. It grossed about five. (Wikipedia says it’s about $1.5 million, but that number appears to be wrong and another source says $4.6 million.) That’s quite a tidy little profit. That same year, Sleeping Beauty was released and also grossed about five million dollars. Unfortunately, it was made for more like six. That makes Sleeping Beauty, however technically, a flop in its initial release, as it simply didn’t make back its initial budget, much less any advertising budget. It’s been seen as a classic in years since—and is in fact my own favourite Disney animated feature—but still.
Disney flops, particularly animated ones, are rare. Before the pandemic, you could count their flops on two hands. (How Disney handled the pandemic is frankly its own article that I think we’re still too close to everything to get into just yet.) Oh, yes, literally ten. But several of those are also, like Sleeping Beauty, in the category of “flops at the time that gradually became seen as all-time classics.” Of the remaining, there are a few solidly in the camp of “not as terrible as their reputation,” a few “meh,” a few cult classics, and one “oh, yeah, that exists.”
We’ll get the last one out of the way first, because it is, let’s be real, possibly the most forgettable movie Disney has ever released. Even Dinosaur has more of a pop culture footprint than Home on the Range. It is the only Disney animated feature I haven’t seen simply because I can’t be bothered. (Though if you are its only fan, I suppose you could pay be to watch it by supporting my Patreon or Ko-fi?) I genuinely don’t know who this movie was for. The cast is all over the place, ranging from Roseanne Barr to Dame Judy Dench to former Texas governor Ann Richards. Its main characters are cows; they go after an outlaw to save their farm. Sure, okay. It failed by all accounts because it deserved to.
A lot of people say the same thing about The Black Cauldron, and it’s certainly true that the fact that it includes dialogue by Roy E. Disney does not exactly inspire hope. Fans of the books are particularly angry about the movie’s failings, as who can blame them. That said, what it has in common with Sleeping Beauty is that it’s dark. Probably two of the darkest films in the Disney animated canon. A lot of parents aren’t interested in taking their kids to see scary movies, and The Black Cauldron could be great, or not, and it doesn’t matter; its dark subject matter would damage its box office return.
Similarly, audiences weren’t flocking with their kids to see the two Fantasia releases. I saw the original in the theatre when I was a child, along with my family and some friends, but a lot of parents don’t bother taking their kids to them in the assumption that their kids will be bored. And let’s be real—turning off parents from taking their kids kills the Disney animated feature market. Older kids mostly don’t want to see them on their own, and adults feel uncomfortable going without kids. Years ago, I had a male friend who insisted on going to Disney movies with one of us, because parents gave him dirty looks if he went alone.
Which is why both Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire probably bombed. While it’s a truism in film that movies about girls are for girls and movies about boys are universal, the target Disney audience tends to skew female, at least in the public perception. Female and young. My daughter is six and seen by a lot of people as Disney’s ideal audience. Think about people freaking out over the preteens in Turning Red and their crushes, and you’ll get it. So making two movies that seem aimed at teenage boys sounds a weird choice no matter their quality. Oddly, Hercules seems to have had the opposite problem, though it’s another one I haven’t seen—only small children were interested.
Arguably, Rescuers Down Under was just a matter of bad timing. It was a sequel that came out thirteen years after the original movie. It was clearly intended to tie into the ‘80s fascination with Australia ably parodied by The Simpsons four years later. The Rescuers Down Under came out even after Crocodile Dundee II showed the time had passed. At that, The Rescuers had not aged well in the general consciousness, and there are a lot more people who haven’t seen it and therefore aren’t interested in a sequel. For those who had, it comes across as a listless copy.
Winnie the Pooh was also bad timing, but inasmuch as it was a movie that felt a bit direct-to-video released in a blockbuster season. Summer 2011 was a busy season. Younger kids were interested in Cars 2 (speaking of things that should’ve been direct-to-video); older kids were interested in the final installment of the TERF lady’s wizard movies. It seemed to have barely been promoted, and it sank without a trace only to be celebrated in later years as Quite A Good Pooh Movie, Actually. We’ll be covering it in this space for Year of the Month in three weeks!
Disney’s fortunes in recent years haven’t been great, and that’s at least partially their own fault. In an effort to improve Disney+ numbers, they’ve been releasing their animated features to streaming pretty quickly, but also that hurts the movies’ box office numbers. Both Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto should have been bigger; there’s a lot that could have been done with Raya that wasn’t, and of course Encanto really became a sensation on streaming in a way that should’ve driven box office numbers instead. It and its soundtrack are going to join Sleeping Beauty, it seems likely. Strange World and Raya and the Last Dragon will probably join Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. It’s worth noting that I like all four of those.