Little can stop Disney from repurposing, reimagining and remonetising its wealthy animation vault for live-action, CGI-heavy adaptations. But doing too little business too often could certainly slow down the assembly line just a bit.
Which is why the soft opening for Tim Burton's Dumbo should cause Disney's bean-counters to pause with a flicker of concern. Even Scrooge McDuck notices when the gold coins aren't clanging methodically along the way they should.
Dumbo grossed just US$45 million ($66m) in its debut in the United States over the weekend, according to studio estimates — well below industry projections of surpassing US$50m.
That number registers as all the more humbling when stacked up against other recent animation-to-live-action adaptations. Dumbo is the smallest North American opening among these, well below such other hits as 2015's Cinderella (US$67.9m debut), 2014's Maleficent (US$69.4m), 2016's The Jungle Book (US$103.3m) — which all bow before the monster opening of 2017's Beauty and the Beast (US$174.8m). (And it bears noting: The 2016 remake Pete's Dragon, which had a US$21.5m US debut, was a smaller picture than those Disney animated-classic remakes, with only a US$65m production budget.)
The new Dumbo did gross US$71m internationally, but a debut in China south of US$11m stands out as another disappointment for such a major market.
Dumbo wasn't helped by the mixed reviews, either, scoring only a 49 per cent "fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 51 on Metacritic.
So what does this mean going forward?
Well, Burton surely has a longer leash than most film-makers at Disney, especially given his hits there such as his 2010 Alice in Wonderland remake, which grossed US$1 billion on a US$200m production budget. (Burton did not direct the underperforming 2016 sequel.) So his long-term stock at the Mouse House shouldn't dip precipitously.
Any disappointment is ameliorated, too, because the 1941 Dumbo cartoon, for all its classic status, is viewed as having less of a pull among young filmgoers than more modern animated characters.
Plus, Burton's Dumbo must be viewed within the larger factory line on these remakes.
Disney's 10 "live-action reimaginings" have grossed a total of nearly US$6b worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo.
And the Magic Kingdom's larger picture for 2019 is that Dumbo isn't the main tentpole with a summer of big, highly anticipated adaptations on the horizon. Guy Ritchie's Aladdin — with the blue-tinted Will Smith inheriting Robin Williams' role as Genie — opens May 24, and Jon Favreau's The Lion King is set to debut July 19.
Both of those films have received much social media attention for their trailers, and both should ride the massive popularity of the animated originals: 1992's Aladdin grossed more than a half-billion American dollars worldwide, before adjusting for inflation, and 1994's beloved The Lion King grossed nearly a billion dollars.
Favreau, who guided the Jungle Book remake to nearly US$1b in worldwide gross, would especially seem to be shouldering weighty hopes. His remake of the Lion King will be expected to at least rival the Beauty and the Beast remake, which grossed US$1.27b worldwide.
If The Lion King and Aladdin score big, then Dumbo's humble numbers will be more of a blip as the animation vault continues to mint millions with each opening weekend.