There is no one surefire way to scale if a movie is a success or a failure. Sure, money is a deciding factor, but not as much as you might think. Some of the film's you'll see on this list are considered some of Disney's - and Hollywood's - very best. But movies like "Dinosaur", "Fantasia 2000", and "Chicken Little" all surprised me: they're movies that I was certain they lost money, but turned out they were successful, at least, from a financial standpoint. But they suffer from the greatest tragedy of all: being forgotten. As some of the ones in this list will prove, losing money is no guarantee of failure. If neglected, and the public is apathetic toward a movie, then it has almost no chance of recouping its losses in DVD and Blu-Ray releases, toy lines, pin sets, and other consumer fodder.
The movies you'll see on this list were researched on Wikipedia and IMDB.com. The figures are skewed, but I did as well as I could to get the numbers as accurate as possible. Plus, with these sources, it's hard to tell if the listed budgets included merchandise developments or promotional items. Moreover, since half of these movies were given re-releases in theaters, I'm sticking to original run grosses, since getting put back in theaters put many of these titles' budgets back into the black. Starting with...
10: Bambi (1942)
Percentage total: 4%
Oh deer. Disney's fifth film ever made and already the third one to lose money on its initial release. (Both "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Dumbo" turned in sizable profits. The other two...are further down this list.). Walt spent years trying to make a grand epic about the life of a deer that, sadly, failed to catch on.
Aside from having a large budget (Only "Dumbo" had a price tag under a million: a big factor why it made back its investment.), Bambi was also released at a bad time. By the time it hit theaters in August of 1942, Americans had more pressing matters on their minds, most notably the Second World War. "Bambi", sadly, has always had the reputation of being namby-pamby, and despite Walt's insistence, few saw around that. The ones most offended, Walt conceded, were deer hunters, claiming they were "ostracized" because they killed Bambi's mom. It wouldn't be until its 1957 re-release, its third after the one in 1947, where the cash rolled right in, much to Walt's relief.
Did it deserve better? Considering movie has gained significant popularity over seventy years later, it's a tough call. Even today, it still stands as popular culture's ultimate pinnacle of saccharine sentimentality in Disney movies, but ironically, it's still a gutsy movie. Bambi's mom getting shot is a doozy, but once Bambi grows up, the kid gloves come off. Vicious hunting dogs, rival bucks, getting shot in mid-air, a forest fire, slaughter of untold amounts of animals (That poor pheasant's death always gets me.), but yeah. It's t doesn't deserve this distinction. Especially when you take into account artist T. Hee's breathtaking backgrounds permeating through every scene. Let's be glad people are actually aware of it.
9. Atlantis: the Lost Empire (2001)
The end of Disney's animation Renaissance came with the release of "Tarzan" in 1999. The ones that followed - "Fantasia 2000", "Dinosaur", and "The Emperor's New Groove" - all made money, but not enough to be considered truly successful. "Atlantis" was the equivalent of parents coming home after their teen's party: most everyone already lost steam an hour ago, but now the party was officially over.
Critics weren't impressed. Like, at all. Many were turned off by the angular design that was utilized by comic book artist Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy. The curse that is being Disney is that it wasn't edgy enough to impress those who liked action movies, and those who liked Disney didn't like it because it was too edgy. Frankly, it was a no-win.
Did it deserve better? I say yes. The weakest aspects could be overlooked, especially if Disney went ahead with its plan to make it into a TV series, "Team Atlantis". In theory, Milo, Kida, and the rest of the cast would travel the globe and investigate supernatural phenomena, which often had ties to Atlantis. However, this could have only worked if they had laid their cards all on the table and gone all out, similar to "Gargoyles". But the idea was dropped and three of its episodes became the direct-to-video sequel, "Atlantis II: Milo's Return". If the quality of the show was going to be anything like that, it probably was best that it didn't happen.
But give credit where credit's due: it was the first Disney movie such a fully diverse cast of characters. It was the "Fast and Furious" before it was a thing, so, your move, Disney offendees.
8. Winnie the Pooh (2011)
This movie has fascinated me from the moment it was first announced. It was said it be hand drawn. Good. They said it would be based on more of A. A. Milne's original stories. Good call. They said they'd get the songwriters from "Avenue Q" (and subsequently "Frozen"). Cool. They said the great Andreas Deja would animate Tigger. SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!!
Why did no one go see this movie? It's actually very simple: where were you July 15th, 2011? If you answered "Camping out at the AMC, waiting for the 'Harry Potter' to open", then you have your answer. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" was released the very same day. "Citizen Kane" could have had screenings beside every "Harry Potter" theater and charged $3 per person and it still wouldn't have drawn any attention.
Did it deserve better? Frankly, no.
Don't misunderstand. I LOVE Winnie the Pooh. You really would have to go out of your way to make me dislike him. And they went out of their way to make me dislike him. It fascinates me how so many critics loved this movie, from Roger Ebert to Doug Walker, when it clearly stands against everything I love about the characters.
Eeyore's in a snarky mood throughout the film, Owl's an arrogant egotist, Piglet is an idiot, Rabbit's abusive, Kangaroo has a chip on her shoulder, and Pooh was made to be tortured throughout the movie to not eat. It was appalling to see these beloved characters abused at the hands of people who didn't really understand them.
Worst of all, there was no effort put into this thing. From the rubbery animation to the overly-simple songs to the weak script, it was supposed to signify the beginning of Disney's next 50 animated films, and while they could have waited a week or two later, when "Harry Potter" mania started to ebb, it could have made money. Heck, there was actually a trailer made that psyched you out by impersonating a "Harry Potter" trailer, only to Pooh rearrange some blocks (a scene from the movie) from "POTR" to "POOH".
Biting satire, Disney.
7. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
"Sleeping Beauty" has a lot of fans, and it should. "Sleeping Beauty" also has a lot of detractors, and it should. The film is both staggering in it artwork and downright dreadful in its story, even its characters are 50/50.
The biggest reason why this movie fell on its proverbial face financially was its $6 million price tag, an exorbitant sum back in 1959. Ultimately, it was the result of being in development for the better part of a decade. Also, like "Atlantis", came at the end of Disney's golden era of the fifties, which resulted in a bit of overconfidence. While Eyvind Earle's backgrounds are as majestic as a medieval tapestry or stained glass window, it was style over substance, leaving the audience very detached.
The characters didn't help. Today we all adore Maleficent, and the three good fairies are delightful, sadly, the leads, Aurora and Phillip, are devoid of personality. It's sad when even their fathers have more chemistry with each other than the prince and the princess.
Did it deserve better? Yes, but not much. Like I said, as a narrative, rife with plot holes and full of unidentifiable characters, it's perfectly understandable why this film tanked as badly as it did.
But as we all know, Maleficent came into her own, and Aurora still makes her obligatory appearances alongside Snow White and Cinderella.
And believe it or not, even one brilliant marketing technique didn't help. Walt named the iconic castle in his Disneyland park after the princess story in an effort to promote the movie that wouldn't be in theaters for four years yet.
6. Pinocchio (1940)
Fresh off the spellbinding success of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", Walt immediately began production on "Bambi", "Fantasia", and "Pinocchio". It was a problematic movie since it was based off a seriously disturbed book by Carlo Collodi.
Pinocchio was originally a deliquent. The cricket got crushed within two paragraphs. Pinocchio got his feet burned off. When he turned into a donkey, he was thrown into the sea where fish ate everything off him but the wood. I mean, Collodi was SICK!
By these accounts, Disney did just about everything right, right? It's sweet and heartwarming, it's message clear and universal, it's scary moments truly are scary, so what went wrong?
Well, first we have to recall Walt's yearning to make better, more expensive movies, which gave his brother, the company finance man, a hernia several times over. But this was only part of the problem. The other was Hitler.
In September of 1939, Germany invaded Poland and kicked off World War II. Quickly, almost all of Europe had to focus their efforts at stopping Hitler and Mussolini. The movie market for nearly all of Europe, was cut off. That subcontinent's worth of change was 40% of Disney's revenue. With "Pinocchio"'s huge price tag, it could have been the "Avatar" of its day, but without Europe's money, it had no chance of getting back its investment.
Did it deserve better? I guess so. It certainly became the great film in the public eye as time went on.
I don't want to sound like a conspiracy nut, but I think one reason it would have had trouble getting traction in the U.S. was in part due to Carlo Collodi being Italian, and being that we were at war with Italy...I dunno. It's just speculation. It doesn't make the movie any less great.
5. Alice in Wonderland (1951)
This one is famous in Disney history for failing as bad as it did at the box office. AND critically.
After the war, Disney had five years of mediocre movies before coming back full force with "Cinderella". Boom. Box office gold. Its follow-up act, "Alice in Wonderland"? Flopped harder than an "America's Funniest Videos" outtake.
There's no one real reason why it tanked so badly. Walt speculated that there was no "heart". Not romance, per se, but it lacked an emotional lynchpin that made audiences sympathetic for Alice. With way too much material for artists and writers to work with, plus trying to stay true to a book that was so iconic, made it a chore for Walt's staff. And critics lampooned it with ardent fervor, many upset at Disney Americanizing a great British tome.
It never returned to theaters while Walt was alive. But when the seventies rolled around, it's fame skyrocketed. Frankly, there's something to be said for college students with access to marijuana and tickets to see "Alice in Wonderland". And a classic was brillig.
Did it deserve better? Again, if it gained popularity long after its original run, it's hard to say if it deserved better. In this case, it just was the wrong time. Audiences in the fifties weren't impressed with surreal imagery for the sake of surrealness. The criticisms from then - Walt's and others - are largely unfounded. It works and it works well. It just was ahead of its time.
4. Fantasia (1940)
"Fantasia". Yeah, THAT "Fantasia". And no, not "Fantasia 2000" (Yeah, I thought it lost money, too. I was wrong. Is there ANY justice anymore?)
This movie was Walt's third and he was doing something no one else had ever done: make animation as dignified and respected form of motion picture. For a public used to seeing wacky slapstick from animation, this could have been an omen of good tidings or bad tidings.
First, like "Bambi", and "Pinocchio", "Fantasia" premiered not long into World War II. And just like them, it was an extremely expensive movie. More important was Walt wanting to replicate the music hall experience. How? By installing extra speakers for "Fantasound", as he called it. Essentially, it was a precursor to today's surround sound systems. But because he wanted every theater to come equipped with these speakers, they couldn't do a nationwide release. They settled for a roadshow that, while lucrative, still couldn't offset the extra expense of Fantasound.
Worse, critics snubbed this movie like a cat at its dinner bowl. They claimed that for all the grand artistry and use of music, the music ended up butchered. Of course they had to adapt the pieces to the stories they were telling, most for time purposes. Audiences weren't prepared for such a mature movie, expecting another Disney cartoon. It had nowhere to go.
Did it deserve better? I can certainly say yes. In this case, it was almost pure high art, and it's a travesty it didn't impress the highbrow critics or appeal to the general public. Oddly enough, just as with "Alice in Wonderland", it didn't gain its due respect until the seventies, where, again, psychedelic imagery and kids with recreational marijuana made for quite the moviegoing experience.
4. The Black Cauldron (1985)
The last great hit for Disney animation was Walt's last, "The Jungle Book", in 1967. History would assign the next big hit "The Little Mermaid" in 1989. In betwixt is what many of us refer to as the dark era, a string of weakly executed movies that barely hang on the vestiges of public consciousness. They range from good to boring, and right near the end was this little movie: the first one rated PG, and the one that was supposed to revolutionize and invigorate Disney animation was "The Black Cauldron".
In an effort to make Disney animated films be appreciated by a public that still saw them as kid's stuff, Disney executives set out to turn that perception on its ear. The problem? With five books to choose from and no clear direction (From the directors or otherwise), the budget careened upward and time marched on for ten years. When the new executives, Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg all moved in back in 1984, they were aghast at the mounting price tag and decided to release the movie in a desperate effort to reclaim some of its money. How did this go? As you can already tell, not well at all.
It still had many of the Disney conventions, like a furry sidekick, a princess, magic, and a happy ending. The non-Disney elements, like the zombie Vikings and the dark, dank castle, contrasted terribly in the most heavy handed ways, distancing most everyone who might have been interested in seeing it.
Did it deserve better? Not really, no.
"The Black Cauldron" has merit. A great adventure film full of fantasy and danger could be a wonderful movie. But with poor direction in an era where none of the executives in charge had full confidence in any of their projects, much less in the animation department, it was destined, perhaps, to flounder.
2. Home on the Range (2004)
What started as a spaghetti western as an animated Disney movie filled with cattle drives and Cowboys and ghosts became a punchline in an attempt to shut down Disney Animation for good.
Along with "Atlantis", several other animated films after the turn of the millennium failed to reach their projected returns. Computer animated films were gaining popularity, raking in tons of money. In contrast, hand drawn films were suffering, for various reasons. To Disney executives, this meant the only way to make money from animated movies again was to completely shut down the hand drawn department, fire most of the staff, and focus almost squarely on computer animation. And most of the films under development were either dropped entirely or remade to CGI. "Home on the Range" was reduced to being tonally similar to "The Emperor's New Groove", which worked to its disadvantage. Some sources claim that the crew knew this was going to be the last one, so they didn't bother putting much effort into it. On one hand, I don't blame them, but on the other...consider if this really WAS the last hand drawn film, this would have been the legacy it would have ended on. Scary, huh?
Did it deserve better? No. Not at all. And I kind of like this movie. It's a guilty pleasure. But I totally get the hate surrounding this movie. From unlikeable characters to unappealing angular character designs to lack of any solid emotional investment, at least "The Emperor's New Groove" had a llama and relateable characters.
1. "Treasure Planet" (2002)
Loss: $101, 879,446
This one frequently floats in my lists of top ten favorite animated Disney movies because it's just that darn good. But it sank like a stone in the box office.
"The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin" directors John Musker and Ron Clements wanted to make a "'Treasure Island' in space" movie, but were frequently denied until after they were obligated to "Hercules". They spent a lot of money developing details had rarely been applied before, like ensuring the movie looked 70% colonial, and 30% sci fi. They spent a ton of research in making the technology in John Silver's CGI and incorporating it with hand drawn animation. Unlike "The Black Cauldron", there was very clear direction and story. The characters were engaging and likeable, there was no war cutting off funding, so what gives? Why didn't even make a quarter of its budget?
The answer is timing. "Treasure Planet" premiered in November of 2002. A month earlier was intrepid Harry Potter's second outing, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets". In December, the public got another great fantasy saga, "Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers". Those going to the movies in late 2002 were decidedly not going to see a Disney cartoon. And one with Aliens? In the same year as "Star Wars: the Clone Wars", "Star Trek: Nemesis", and "Lilo and Stitch"? And maybe that curse of Disney trying appeal to teens still holds true. Or maybe it was a mix of all these things and more.
Did it deserve better? Most definitely!
I'm at a loss as to why this movie continues to remain neglected. Its animation is stunning, its characters are richly defined, the message sincere and heartfelt, and need I mention the song "I'm Still Here" by John Rzeznik is powerful? If you haven't rented it from Netflix yet, you may want to eventually.