Animation Opening Weekends and Other Stuff…

Originally written October 13, 2014…
Updated January 23, 2017...

The other day, I wanted to see what films were the biggest on opening weekend each year. The reason I did this was because I think it gives you some context on the times… I'll be focusing on the mid-1990s until roughly 2004.

#1. The Lion King - $40.8 million
#2. Pocahontas - $29.5 million
#3. Toy Story - $29.1 million
#4. Aladdin - $19.2 million
#5. Beauty and the Beast - $9.6 million

Despite Pocahontas grossing less than The Lion King, people should remember that $141 million domestically back in 1995 was still a great gross for an any animated film or film, even if it was below what the previous three Disney animated films had taken in. Pocahontas took in the second biggest opening total for an animated film, with Toy Story very close behind it later that year.

In 1995, animated competition wasn't like what it is today. Many distributors fumbled, 1995 was loaded with many box office flops such as Don Bluth's The Pebble and the Penguin (released by MGM) and Universal's well-received Amblimation feature Balto. 1995's third highest grossing animated movie was another Disney release, A Goofy Movie, and that didn't even crack $40 million by the end of its run.

#1. The Lion King - $40.8 million
#2. Pocahontas - $29.5 million
#3. Toy Story - $29.1 million
#4. Space Jam - $27.5 million
#5. The Hunchback of Notre Dame - $21.0 million

1996 brought on a surprise opener in Space Jam, a movie that truly was a product of its time. This opening must've upset Disney a bit, because it had opened higher than Hunchback and was very close to Pocahontas and Toy Story. Also add to the fact that it wasn't well-received, but Disney finally got some legitimate competition here, the first time since Don Bluth completed The Land Before Time back in 1988.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame opened significantly lower than Pocahontas, which Disney was reportedly upset over, but $21 million still landed them in the Top 5. It was still in the 2-0 field.

#1. The Lion King - $40.8 million
#2. Pocahontas - $29.5 million
#3. Toy Story - $29.1 million
#4. Space Jam - $27.5 million
#5. Hercules - $21.4 million

Hercules didn't perform especially well, but it was at least a bit higher than Hunchback. Its legs and word-of-mouth, however, wasn't as strong as it ended with a couple thousands below Hunchback at the end of its run. Nothing else in 1997 stood a chance, though Don Bluth's comeback Anastasia opened with a fine $14 million and made a good $56 million at the end of its run.

However, the following year, things changed…

#1. The Lion King - $40.8 million
#2. A Bug's Life - $33 million
#3. Pocahontas - $29 million
#4. Toy Story - $29 million
#5. Space Jam - $27 million
#6. The Rugrats Movie - $27 million
#7. Mulan - $22 million

#8. Hercules - $21 million
#9 The Hunchback of Notre Dame - $21 million
#10. Beavis and Butt-Head Do America - $20 million

1998, as I stated on my other article about Disney animation and box office, was the year when things got heated. You had DreamWorks scoring two films - Antz and The Prince of Egypt - that opened lower but had strong legs. Two films that held on like crazy and produced some big grosses that began to rival some of Disney's…

You also had The Rugrats Movie breaking a record, but like Space Jam, that was a case of everything lining up and it would be something that wouldn't occur again. Subsequent Rugrats movies didn't repeat that same big success. Then you had Pixar's A Bug's Life outdoing Toy Story and becoming the second biggest opener for an animated film…

People forget A Bug's Life because?

The Rugrats Movie opened so well in late 1998 for a good reason. Believe it or not, the show's original run was moderately successful for Nickelodeon, it was not huge. Nick ended the series in 1994 with a few specials following, actually Ren & Stimpy lasted longer than this show at the time, finally ending in 1996 - a solid 5-year run. But reruns (similar to what happened to Family Guy in the early 2000s) of Rugrats garnered the show new audiences, and it became so big that Nickelodeon revived the show. The show was now at the height of its popularity in 1997-98, Rugrats-mania was in full swing. Of course the movie was going to open big. No Nickelodeon show would exceed the number of episodes this series spawned until SpongeBob, and that wasn't until what… 2009-ish?

But lo and behold, it had made 3.7x its opening weekend. This was an okay-ish multiplier back in 1998, however it's great for any film now. Why's that? Films didn't hit home media so quickly after hitting theaters back in the late 90s/early 2000s. Mulan is a very good example. The film was released theatrically in June 1998, the VHS was released in February 1999 - a nine-month wait! If Mulan was made today, it would've hit theaters in June and then hit Blu-ray/DVD in November.

Mulan, The Prince of Egypt, Antz, and A Bug's Life all made over 4x their respective opening weekends. Rugrats in Paris was released in fall 2000, and it opened with $22 million. This would've been a big total for a non-Disney animated film in 1998, but by 2000, it wasn't all that impressive.

Mulan's opening weekend gross on its own terms was pretty solid, but it was behind some of the competition. It still had strong legs, though.

Beavis & Butt-Head Do America got to where it got back in 1996 because it was based on the huge hit show. It enjoyed a decent run at the box office.

#1. Toy Story 2 - $57 million
#2. The Lion King - $40 million
#3. Tarzan - $34 million
#4. A Bug's Life - $33 million
#5. Pokemon the First Movie - $31 million
#6. Pocahontas - $29 million
#7. Toy Story - $29 million
#8. Space Jam - $27 million
#9. The Rugrats Movie - $27 million
#10. Mulan - $22 million

So it took five years for an animated feature to dethrone The Lion King in terms of opening weekend grosses. Toy Story 2, despite staying in theaters for an incredibly long time (nine months), still couldn't dethrone Disney's big cat in the end. But, but… Toy Story 2 was the second highest-grossing animated film in the domestic market, and wouldn't be bumped out of the #2 spot until 2001.

Disney also saw a pick-me-up in Tarzan, then the third biggest animated film opener. The legs were even stronger than the ones for A Bug's LifeTarzan was Disney Animation's third highest-earning film domestically behind The Lion King and Aladdin… If they were disappointed with its grosses back in 1999, then something was truly wrong with the bean-counters.

Then we get to Pokemon the First Movie. This was Rugrats Movie all over again, as the subsequent Pokemon films released in 2000 and onwards did not replicate that success. It's quite telling that this film had the fifth biggest opening weekend for an animated film at the time of its release, but where were you in 1999? I was 6-going-on-7, Pokemon was everywhere. Pokemania! Like Beanie Babies and Furbies, it took the world by storm! My sister and I had the cards, we watched the TV series like it was such a big deal, most of my peers bragged about their Pokemon cards, Burger King sold those super cool gold-plate Pokemon slab-card thingies. It was a big deal with kids and adults everywhere, naturally the movie was going to go over like gangbusters. But despite opening higher than the six movies below it, it grossed less than all of them. Even Space Jam. 2.65x its opening! A weak multiplier for an animated film today, and a terrible one back then.

#1. Toy Story 2 - $57 million
#2. The Lion King - $40 million
#3. Dinosaur - $38 million
#4. Tarzan - $34 million
#5. A Bug's Life - $33 million
#6. Pokemon the First Movie - $31 million
#7. Pocahontas - $29 million
#8. Toy Story - $29 million
#9. Space Jam - $27 million
#10. The Rugrats Movie - $27 million

Little by little, those "big" openings for The Rugrats Movie and Space Jam were looking smaller and smaller. Dinosaur opened big, another upswing for Disney coming right off of Tarzan. But Dinosaur didn't really hold up, and I suspect it's because the film was only good for kids. Much has been written about Dinosaur's main downfall, and how the executives at Disney sacrificed a silent fx extravaganza that could've been really awesome for a talky, poorly-written film with hip slang and a bland story. Audiences may have flocked to it when it opened (Who wouldn't have? It looked incredible from the trailers!), but like something like Roland Emmerich's bad Godzilla film, that opening ($44m!) only meant so much. It had made an average 3.6x its opening weekend. Again, that was just an okay multiplier back in 2000.

CGI was the big thing back in 2000. From around Jurassic Park's release to about 2005, audiences flocked to CG spectacles. There were some anomalies, but most of those big budget fx pics were the rage.

2000, aside from Dinosaur opening big and Aardman's Chicken Run being a very leggy, record-breaking film, was mostly kind of a wasteland in terms of animation at the box office. The rest of offerings were either bad traditionally animated films or traditionally animated films that looked bad. The Emperor's New Groove may have been better received than most of the post-Lion King films, but audiences made up their minds before it even came out… Only to find themselves going to see it late in the game when word trickled out from the minuscule amount of people who saw it, word of it being a really good film! $89 million off of a terrible $9 million opening? Nearly 10x its opening? The Emperor's New Groove may have been a money-loser in the end thanks to a large budget, but it can't be denied that audiences loved it.

On the other hand, Titan A.E. was one of the first in a series of animated films made for teen boys, the audience you should not go after when making animated films. I know this from personal experiences and others know it too, most 10-13 year old boys avoid animation like the plague because they perceive it as kiddy, unless it's something that's obviously more adult-oriented like Family Guy or South Park. I have no idea what 10-13 year old boys think of animation nowadays, but back in 2004 when I was 11-going-on-12, most of my peers saw animation as kids stuff. I remember telling a friend how good The Incredibles was, he said, "Nah! That's a kids movie, I'm gonna go see Team America!" Animation historian Ernest Rister wrote extensively about this in 2000, revealing that Fox's executives had ordered Don Bluth to direct and make an animated movie aimed at 10-to-13 year old boys, which he objected to. In the end, you got a film no one really wanted to see. Too violent for kids, not cool for anyone over the age of 10. The Road to El Dorado suffered a similar problem, plus it just wasn't well-received, but it did hold on well.

Moving on…

#1. Monsters, Inc. - $62 million
#2. Toy Story 2 - $57 million
#3. Shrek - $42 million
#4. The Lion King - $40 million
#5. Dinosaur - $38 million
#6. Tarzan - $34 million
#7. A Bug's Life - $33 million
#8. Pokemon the First Movie - $31 million
#9. Pocahontas - $29 million
#10. Toy Story - $29 million

Monsters, Inc. of course opened so well for a good reason, and no, it wasn't Star Wars fans going into the theater just to watch the Attack of the Clones trailer and then leave. Maybe in some theaters, people did that, but I highly doubt a good chunk of that gross came from those fans. Monsters, Inc. was coming off of two Pixar films that opened with both $34 million (BIG in 1998) and $57 million (HUGE in 1999) respectively. $55 million was the floor for it.

Anyways, Monsters, Inc. was the record-breaker for many good reasons. It was great, it was Pixar, it came off of the well-loved Toy Story 2, it looked awesome, how would it not break the record?

Shrek was also big for multiple reasons: Good film, it was CGI, it was hip, it had something in it for everyone, it also surprisingly had a good story and heart. It also spoke to a crowd that was sick and tired of Disney and Disney-style animation, it successfully appealed to preteens and teens because of its PG-level innuendoes and hipness - something action films like Titan A.E. and Atlantis did not have and did not need to have. But in order to get that fraction of the audience, you gotta be hip! Naturally too, you can't force hipness. It was also pretty fresh at the time, too. Audiences did want something new anyways, though personally I don't see Shrek as a "fresh" movie in any sense. The Emperor's New Groove is a much better and wittier parody of 90s Disney films in my eyes, and Shrek's story wasn't this groundbreaking new thing anyways and it only works off of generalizations about Disney classics/fairy tales in general. Anyways, back to history…

Atlantis opened okay, but it fell into the same trap Titan A.E. walked right into. Everything else didn't really do all that great, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius was a small success but little else.

Animation opening weekends were in the 60s range by 2001. What was the biggest opening weekend of all time back in late 2001? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, $90 million. Monsters, Inc. sat alongside the likes of The Phantom MenaceThe Mummy Returns, Rush Hour 2, and Planet of the Apes: All big 60+ openers. There was no such thing as a $70 million opening back then, only Potter #1 exceeded it. Yeah, Monsters, Inc.'s opening was a huge deal! It was one of the biggest ever, period!

#1. Monsters, Inc. - $62 million
#2. Toy Story 2 - $57 million
#3. Ice Age - $46 million
#4. Shrek - $42 million
#5. The Lion King - $40 million
#6. Dinosaur - $38 million
#7. Lilo & Stitch - $35 million
#8. Tarzan - $34 million
#9. A Bug's Life - $33 million
#10. Pokemon the First Movie - $31 million

By this time, the Pokemon movie's opening is now looking smaller and smaller, it's on its way out of the top 10. One of 2002's only real animation success stories was Ice Age. The great opening was all due to the film looking great and it being CGI. Remember, that was still the rage by 2002.

Even if released today, I think Ice Age still would've had a fine opening. Fox wisely used the film's hilarious opening sequence instead of a regular teaser, and that whole sequence with Scrat made everyone want to see the film! Luckily, Ice Age turned out to be good and it held on. It made 3.8x its opening, by 2002 this was a little more acceptable for an animated feature, as release windows began to shrink and movies began to hit DVD/VHS sooner.

Then we get to a little film called Lilo & Stitch, a real pick-me-up for Disney Animation. That marketing was excellent: Stitch, this quirky and weird-looking new Disney character invading the classics! What a cool campaign! Who didn't want to see it? Too bad Disney's execs conspired to kill hand-drawn, any reasonable bean counter would've been faithful in 2D had they seen Lilo & Stitch's final total. Anyways, it opened with a very big amount and landed itself in the top ten!

Everything else? 2002 was mostly a rough year for hand-drawn animation. Treasure Planet was left to die, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron had okay legs but it cost too much thus it bombed for DreamWorks.

In 2002, the opening weekend record was broken again. Spider-Man now held the crown with a massive $114 million opening. We started to see some more movies hit the $70-90 million range. Would an animated film get up there someday? Well…

#1. Finding Nemo - $70 million
#2. Monsters, Inc. - $62 million
#3. Toy Story 2 - $57 million
#4. Ice Age - $46 million
#5. Shrek - $42 million
#6. The Lion King - $40 million
#7. Dinosaur - $38 million
#8. Lilo & Stitch - $35 million
#9. Tarzan - $34 million
#10. A Bug's Life - $33 million

An animated film just tipped the $70 million range, and it was none other than a critically-acclaimed CGI film that happened to look great from the trailers, and one that just hit the sweet spot with audiences. Unlike most big openers, Finding Nemo had incredibly strong legs and a summer all to itself. It became the world's highest grossing animated film both domestically and internationally, while also being one of two animated films - back then - to make more than $300 million stateside.

Nobody else won that year though. Disney dumped Brother Bear, but audiences did show up, though it was too late by the time it picked up some steam. DreamWorks' Sinbad was a movie nobody wanted to see, and Rugrats Go Wild? A Rugrats/Wild Thornberrys crossover probably would've rocked the animation box office in 1998 or 1999. In 2003? Not really…

So, would an animated film open with over $80 million? $90 million perhaps? A bit of stretch, maybe $100 million is way too optimistic…

#1. Shrek 2 - $108 million
#2. The Incredibles 2 - $70 million

#3. Finding Nemo - $70 million
#4. Monsters, Inc. - $62 million
#5. Toy Story 2 - $57 million
#6. Shark Tale - $47 million
#7. Ice Age - $46 million
#8. Shrek - $42 million
#9. The Lion King - $40 million
#10. Dinosaur - $38 million

That's right, an animated film scored the second biggest opening weekend gross of all time. It even opened bigger than the sequel to the film that held the crown. Yeah, Spider-Man 2 opened with $88 million, which was significantly less than the first film's $114 million weekend take! Shrek 2 made that look like nothing, $108 million in the can! Audiences loved the movie too, it held on like mad since it pretty much had the whole summer to itself. It was now one of the highest grossing films of all time, being the first animated film to cross $400 million domestically. In fact, today, only two more films released afterwards got there: Toy Story 3 and Frozen.

Shrek 2 is also one of three animated films that have opened with more than $100 million. The other two are Shrek the Third and Toy Story 3

The Incredibles nestled in second place, still in 70-80 range. Shark Tale opened good, Ice Age-style opening. The Polar Express landed in the early 20s but had great legs.

After around 2005, the CGI fad began to die down as audiences became aware of poorly-made films. That initial novelty began to fade away. A slew of bad computer animated movies hit the scene in 2006, most of them died a quick death and are barely even remembered by the general public. The likes of Doogal, The Wild, The Ant Bully, Barnyard, Everyone's Hero, et al. Did you, the reader, know of any of those?

Oddly enough, very few animated films have cracked $70 million on opening weekend since 2004. No Pixar film reached it, except Toy Story 3 in 2010. Shrek the Third and Shrek Forever After did it, Despicable Me 2 did it, Monsters University did it. The Simpsons Movie did it. Notice a pattern here? It's sequels or in Simpsons Movie's case, based on the longest running primetime show ever, that cracked it. The biggest opening for an non-sequel animated film since 2004 was The Lorax… Let that sink in. Most animated films settle for the 40-50 million range, others are lucky enough to get past 60 these days. Let's look at this year so far, and what the top 20 animated film openings are…

  1. Shrek the Third - $121 million 
  2. Toy Story 3 - $110 million 
  3. Shrek 2 - $108 million 
  4. Despicable Me 2 - $83 million 
  5. Monsters University - $82 million 
  6. The Simpsons Movie - $74 million 
  7. Shrek Forever After - $70 million 
  8. The Incredibles - $70 million 
  9. Finding Nemo - $70 million 
  10. Dr. Seuss' The Lorax - $70 million 
  11. The Lego Movie - $69 million
  12. Up - $68 million 
  13. Ice Age: The Meltdown - $68 million 
  14. Frozen - $67 million 
  15. Brave - $66 million 
  16. Cars 2 - $66 million 
  17. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa - $63 million 
  18. WALL-E - $63 million 
  19. Monsters, Inc. - $62 million 
  20. Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted - $60 million

Now let's adjust those… And we'll look at this using post-1990 animated feature releases, because I can't seem to find opening weekend numbers for the earliest animated features...

  1. Shrek the Third - $144 million
  2. Shrek 2 - $141 million
  3. Toy Story 3 - $114 million
  4. Finding Nemo - $94 million
  5. The Incredibles - $92 million
  6. Toy Story 2 - $92 million
  7. Monsters, Inc. - $90 million
  8. The Simpsons Movie - $87 million
  9. Despicable Me 2 - $86 million
  10. Ice Age: The Meltdown - $84 million
  11. Monsters University - $80 million
  12. The Lion King - $79 million
  13. Cars - $74 million
  14. Up - $74 million
  15. Shrek Forever After - $73 million
  16. Dr. Seuss' The Lorax - $72 million
  17. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa - $71 million
  18. WALL-E - $71 million
  19. The Lego Movie - $69 million
  20. Kung Fu Panda - $68 million

Quite a difference! Shrek the Third would've made $144 million on opening weekend if released today, and that's without 3D and IMAX 3D! Ditto Shrek 2! What's the biggest non-3D opening ever adjusted? The Dark Knight Rises, with $167 million. Not too far off!

But you'll see that only two traditionally animated films are in the Top 20: The Simpsons Movie and The Lion King. This shows that CG was definitely the rage back in the late 90s/early 2000s as grosses got bigger and bigger for films, and The Lion King's opening was huge compared to Aladdin's. Adjust Aladdin's opening and you get $37 million! The once huge Dinosaur? $58 million. By contrast, Toy Story 2 adjusted well. Shrek? $60 million.

Now… I've left out something incredibly important. The final grosses! Well, the top post-1980 animated films adjusted, domestically… (Not going to count re-releases.) Honestly, if I factored in everything from before that, things would get muddled. Things already are muddled when it comes to the Walt films and box office.

All you need to really know is, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is probably #1. It was a monstrously-large success back when it got a general release in early 1938.

  1. The Lion King - $608 million
  2. Shrek 2 - $579 million
  3. Finding Nemo - $459 million
  4. Aladdin - $427 million
  5. Toy Story 3 - $425 million
  6. Frozen - $400 million
  7. Toy Story 2 - $389 million
  8. Shrek - $385 million
  9. Shrek the Third - $382 million
  10. Despicable Me 2 - $382 million
  11. Monsters, Inc. - $367 million
  12. Toy Story - $357 million
  13. The Incredibles - $342 million
  14. Up - $320 million
  15. Who Framed Roger Rabbit - $310 million
  16. Cars - $303 million
  17. Beauty and the Beast - $284 million
  18. Tarzan - $274 million
  19. Monsters University - $268 million
  20. The Lego Movie - $257 million

So... Why no $100 million openings for animation anymore?

The opening weekend record is currently held by The Avengers, which opened with a colossal $207 million over two years ago. Second place to that is Iron Man 3, which made $174 million. Fifteen films - unadjusted - have opened with more than $120 million in North America. A decent chunk of them are 2D-only films.

Very few animation releases have come close to $100 million, or have barely scraped it. Again, Shrek the Third opened with $121 million that still stands tall today, and Toy Story 3 opened with $110 million. The closest we got to those openings since 2010 was Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University.

I think animation got to those heights back in the days because there were times when animation was warmly embraced by pretty much everyone, including those who wouldn't bother with an "inferior kiddie cartoon movie". Animation was massive in the early 90s, everyone flocked to the "cartoons". In the early 2000s, it was same deal. But when will we get everyone back into the theaters for animated films?

When will see an animated film - sequel or not - crack $100 million on opening weekend again?

UPDATE: January 23, 2017

Over two years later, we've seen some changes to the playing field...

Two animated films released last year took in over $100 million on their respective opening weekends, one was a sequel, the other was an original film...

Pixar's Finding Dory took in $136 million on its opening weekend, The Secret Life of Pets bowed with $104 million. Now, let's the take above lists and update them!

Highest Grossing Post-1980 Animated Films, no re-release totals...

  1. The Lion King - $645 million
  2. Shrek 2 - $614 million
  3. Finding Nemo - $487 million
  4. Finding Dory - $486 million
  5. Aladdin - $453 million
  6. Toy Story 3 - $451 million
  7. Frozen - $424 million
  8. Toy Story 2 - $413 million
  9. Shrek - $409 million
  10. Shrek the Third - $405 million
  11. Despicable Me 2 - $405 million
  12. Monsters, Inc. - $390 million
  13. Toy Story - $379 million
  14. The Secret Life of Pets - $374 million
  15. Inside Out - $373 million
  16. The Incredibles - $363 million
  17. Minions - $352 million
  18. Zootopia - $342 million
  19. Up - $339 million
  20. Who Framed Roger Rabbit - $329 million
  21. Cars - $322 million
  22. Beauty and the Beast - $302 million
  23. A Bug's Life - $295 million
  24. Tarzan - $291 million
  25. Monsters University - $287 million
Quite the difference!

The list really shows how much of hit-maker Illumination is, and how out of reach those top slots still are. If Finding Dory, a sequel to a beloved Pixar film with an adjusted $480m+ total, couldn't do it... What could land amongst those top two? What can be the next, in terms of late 20th century animation, Lion King or Shrek 2?

Now, adjusted opening weekend grosses...

  1. Shrek the Third - $152 million
  2. Shrek 2 - $150 million
  3. Finding Dory - $135 million
  4. Minions - $121 million
  5. Toy Story 3 - $121 million
  6. The Secret Life of Pets - $106 million
  7. Finding Nemo - $100 million
  8. The Incredibles - $98 million
  9. Toy Story 2 - $97 million
  10. Monsters, Inc. - $95 million
  11. Inside Out - $94 million
  12. The Simpsons Movie - $93 million
  13. Despicable Me 2 - $92 million
  14. Ice Age: The Meltdown - $89 million
  15. Monsters University - $85 million
  16. The Lion King - $84 million
  17. Cars - $79 million
  18. Up - $78 million
  19. Shrek Forever After - $77 million
  20. Dr. Seuss' The Lorax - $76 million
  21. Madagascar 2: Escape to Africa - $76 million
  22. WALL-E - $76 million
  23. Zootopia - $75 million
  24. The Lego Movie - $75 million
  25. Kung Fu Panda - $72 million
Seems like the inflation of movie ticket prices is really bringing animation to routine blockbuster numbers now... We shall see where we are in a few years...