Even if you don’t count the LucasFilms and Marvel properties that are now part of their portfolio, there’s no denying that Disney owns a large cache of film properties that continue to print money for the house of mouse. However, what most people don’t know is that many of these films weren’t profitable when they originally debuted, and some even struggled to break even. Here are 5 of the most surprising examples:
#5. Peter Pan
With Hook, Jake and the Never Land Pirates, the Tinkerbell spin-offs and the countless merchandise related to Peter Pan, one would think that the original animated adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s tale of the boy who wouldn’t grow up is massively successful. However, when it originally came out in 1953, Peter Pan actually had trouble breaking even, only earning a little bit more than its $4 million budget. It wasn’t a critically acclaimed project either, as Walt’s decision to break away from certain traditions (such as Tinkerbell being portrayed as a sexually attractive girl instead of a faceless spotlight, or that Peter is masculine when the character is frequently portrayed by girls in stage plays) gave critics reason to lambast the film.
Another massively popular franchise based on a fairy tale, 1940’s Pinocchio is believed by most people to have been commercially successful when it first came out, especially since it was released after Snow White and the Seven Dwarves proved to be a blockbuster. The truth is that Pinocchio, while received well by the masses, struggled to recoup its production cost because of three things: the European markets are affected by the growing expanse of the Third Reich, Disney is having trouble dealing with their growing debt, and most importantly – Pinocchio’s budget was nearly double Snow White’s.
#3 The Sword in the Stone
The Sword in the Stone is a 1963 animated take on King Arthur’s legend, particularly how he met Merlin and how he became a king. Most people won’t believe that it almost flopped when it was first released, mainly because it is now sitting on top of $22,182,353 total theatrical sales, making it one of the highest earning films released in 1963.
However, a sizable chunk of those numbers were from the 1972 and 1983 theatrical reissue, when the film was released alongside Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore. The Sword in the Stone’s original release received mixed reviews from critics and only managed to make a profit due to huge budget cuts that Disney was imposing on animated film productions at the time. The film would have been a huge flop if it were given the same kind of budget allotted to Disney’s animated films prior to the budget cuts.
Fantasia is considered as the crowning jewel in Walt Disney’s rich library of animated films. It originally started out as the short film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but Walt’s decision to hire renowned conductor Leopold Stokowski increased the cost of the short to three times the average budget for a Mickey Mouse cartoon. Instead of cutting his losses, Walt gambled by further increasing the budget to $2.3 million and turning the short into a full-length film.
Walt’s vision was way ahead of its time – Fantasia ran for over two hours at a time when most of his movies only ran for 83 minutes, and they created a new multitrack stereo surround system that required most theaters to invest in a speaker upgrade (something that most theaters refused to do, resulting in the film only being shown the way Walt intended it to be in a handful of theaters.) To make things worse, the U.S. was still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression and neighboring countries were steeling for the World War brewing in Europe.
It took multiple re-releases and several years before Fantasia managed to recoup its original budget.
#1 Sleeping Beauty
It’s hard to imagine Disney’s animated take on the Grimm brothers’ Little Briar Rose folk tale ever struggling financially. After all, the film is based on a very popular yarn and the characters Disney created went on to become popular brands (Maleficent, for instance, appeared in other media and had her own live action film.)
The thing is that Sleeping Beauty had a lot riding on it. The production went over budget, with Walt’s decision to make the film in CinemaScope (a graphic style created by painter Eyvind Earle) being one of the key factors. A decision that led to the film’s animation looking detailed and precise at the cost of production being lengthened to four years and the cost ballooning to $6 million. The film only made $5.3 million during its initial release.
Sleeping Beauty has since made Disney enough money to make the original’s subpar performance (the film has now earned more than $36 million), and it served as a wake up call for the company, one that resulted in smarter budgeting for succeeding films, such as 101 Dalmatians, which was given half the budget of Sleeping Beauty but grossed twice as much during its initial release.