Aladdin entered theaters with low expectations after a shaky marketing campaign, but it ended up becoming one of the biggest hits of the year.
The Aladdin remake became a surprise box office smash hit, but how exactly did that happen? In addition to banking on their lucrative subsidiaries like Marvel and Lucasfilm, Disney’s launched a very successful enterprise in recent years by remaking their animated classics as live-action films. While there was a live-action 101 Dalmations back in 1996, this sub-franchise didn’t truly take form until Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland hit the scene in 2010. Despite mixed reviews, that film grossed over $1 billion worldwide, paving the way for more adaptations.
In the last handful of years, the likes of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Beauty and the Beast all became massive hits for the Mouse House, and there’s no sign of this trend ending any time soon. After releasing a grand total of zero re-imaginings in 2018, this year saw a bevy of them. Dumbo came out in March, followed by Aladdin in May, and The Lion King later this month (not to mention, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil in October). Whereas Dumbo was a bit of a disappointment, Aladdin proved to be one of the biggest hits of the year. And, frankly, it was a surprising turn of events.
Aladdin Had Very Low Expectations
On-paper, an Aladdin remake sounded like a sure thing financially. The original animated film was one of the tentpoles of Disney’s 1990s renaissance and remains one of the most popular titles in the studio’s catalog. That being said, those facts seemed to work against the remake in the early stages of marketing. Initial trailers and TV spots were subject to a decidedly mixed reception, particularly when Will Smith’s blue Genie was revealed. A lot of people felt like Aladdin was a disaster waiting to happen and had the potential to be another Memorial Day bomb for Disney, following last year’s Solo: A Star Wars Story.
In some respects, Aladdin felt like a litmus test for audiences’ tolerance of the live-action remakes. Even the ones that were hits weren’t necessarily beloved at the time of their release. Obviously, they lacked the magic and soul of their originals, and some questioned what point they served (other than to make more money). Beauty and the Beast in particular was seen as a hollow retelling that went through the motions and peppered in some unnecessary filler to boot. Based on the Aladdin marketing materials, it looked like it’d be more of the same, hitting all of the expected story beats. The best remakes are the ones that improve upon an underwhelming original (Ocean’s Eleven is the ideal example here). Disney’s animated classics are just that, classics. It’s hard to do anything than make a carbon copy that could be uninspiring.
It also didn’t help matters that the narrative surrounding the Disney remakes was shaky leading up to Aladdin’s release. As mentioned earlier, Dumbo tanked at the box office, earning just $351.9 million worldwide against a production budget of $170 million. That raised questions about the longterm viability of Disney’s strategy to remake their animated films. Sometimes, all it takes is one letdown to drastically change the established order. After Justice League collapsed, DC pivoted away from an interconnected shared universe and focused more on standalone films. Disney already had Aladdin in the pipeline, but it was still curious to see how it would perform given the negative pre-release buzz and general apathy about the Disney remakes.
And then a funny thing happened. Buoyed by surprisingly positive professional reviews, Aladdin scored one of the best Memorial Day openings of all-time. It made $112.7 million domestically over the extended holiday frame, and $233.7 million globally – making back its $183 million budget in a single weekend. It then went on one of the more unthinkable box office runs in recent memory, becoming the highest-grossing film in Will Smith’s career (unadjusted for inflation, of course) and just cracked the $900 million mark. Even the biggest Disney fans might be surprised by that turn of events, so how did this happen?
How Aladdin Became a Major Hit
We shouldn’t overlook that point about the positive reviews. Word-of-mouth for the actual film definitely helped here. Granted, those who were positive on the movie still felt it couldn’t really compare to the original, but still considered it a fun family adventure film. That consensus likely encouraged those sitting on the fence to check Aladdin out, since it appeared to be worth the trip to the theater – especially since there wasn’t much else playing at the time (at least, for the target demographic). Detective Pikachu had debuted a couple weeks prior, but wasn’t as big of a draw as some had originally anticipated.
That likely had to do with Avengers: Endgame, which proved to be a much larger juggernaut than the rosiest optimists had projected. Marvel’s mega event came storming out of the gates and overshadowed everything else vying for ticket sales. Disney was smart to space their two tentpoles apart by a month. When Aladdin premiered, Endgame had already done a majority of its damage, totaling over $800 million domestically. There wasn’t necessarily a void in the marketplace for a new four-quadrant blockbuster, but people seemed to be ready for something other than another Avengers rewatch. Aladdin fit the bill as something the whole family could enjoy.
Building off of that, Aladdin got unexpectedly strong legs when the calendar flipped to June, and a string of summer bombs came out. Godzilla: King of the Monsters debuted softer than hoped, and then Dark Phoenix and Men in Black: International went up in flames. Because of this, Aladdin has remained in the top 5 on the weekend domestic charts since it opened, coming in fifth place for the weekend of July 5-7. Clearly, that streak is nearing its end (Lion King is coming), but that’s still an incredible accomplishment for a movie that was seriously doubted months before it came out. Aladdin will probably stay in the top 10 through August, padding its totals until the end of the summer.
Looking back at Aladdin’s performance, it’s safe to say Dumbo was just a blip on the radar and there remains high interest in seeing these remakes. That bodes well for Disney’s future slate, which includes The Lion King later this month, as well as Mulan and a new Little Mermaid. Sooner or later, the Mouse House is going to run out of vault titles to bring back, but at least they can be confident this well hasn’t dried up yet. Aladdin, somehow, is the third-highest grossing movie of 2019 so far, trailing only Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame. Disney just keeps on winning, and they have plenty of other huge blockbusters on the way before the year comes to a close.