Few brands are tied into our collective cultural nostalgia as much as Disney. No one ever asks what your favorite Universal or Columbia picture is, but everyone has a favorite Disney film. Kids across the country still dream of trips to one of the entertainment behemoth’s theme parks and they always get that Super Bowl moment. Disney is part of the American experience, and at long last, it seems, the House of Mouse has finally managed to leverage the American values of nostalgia and the familiar to become the cinema giant the company has always strived to be.
When the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, the year will almost certainly close with Disney being the studio behind the five highest-grossing films of 2016. The only question is where Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will end up in the rankings, ahead or behind Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, Zootopia and the live-action The Jungle Book. Together those four films made a combined $4.1 billion around the globe.
You’ll also notice that only one of them is an original concept. Captain America is an existing property and a sequel, Finding Dory is a sequel, and The Jungle Book is the third time the company has gone to that particular well. Mourn all you want about the lack of new ideas in Hollywood, but Disney’s 2016 proves that most people want the familiar and recognizable.
It’s a drastic turn from a decade ago when Disney’s highest-grossing flicks were a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel and a Pixar movie about cars. It’s even a pretty drastic turn from five years ago, when its top earners were, no joke, a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel and a Pixar movie about cars. These movies made lots of money, but Disney didn’t feel like the brand that it had at one time; it was simply another movie studio.
It took a few smart moves for Disney to get where it is now. Making better animated films helped, as the creative resurgence that started with Tangled led to Wreck-It Ralph and the inescapable Frozen. Disney bought Marvel, which gave the company Marvel Studios and, therefore, The Avengers in 2012 and the $1.5 billion it generated at the box office. A few months after The Avengers, Disney purchased Lucasfilm and got the Star Wars franchise. Four years later Disney is making money hand over fist as the owners of the beloved Disney animation library, one of the Big Two comic book companies and one of the most profitable franchises in film history. It’s about as good as having your own license to print money.
All of this works, of course, because Disney and the companies it brought under its umbrella are masters of giving people the comfort food they so desire. The public is now 14 films into the story of the Marvel Universe, and that brand is so strong that even an Ant-Man movie can make half a billion dollars. There’s at least one Star Wars film coming out every year until 2020, and Rogue One’s strong opening weekend suggests fans have no problem with stories outside the main trilogies. Both brands represent worlds that movie fans can’t wait to slip back into no matter how many films have come before. The two most recent Star Wars films, The Force Awakens and Rogue One, also have the nostalgia glow, both practically reaching out and screaming to audiences, “Remember how cool A New Hope was?”
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But Disney has always been about nostalgia. It adapted stories that were birthed in the past on distant shores, turning European fairy tales like Cinderalla and Sleeping Beauty into stories all Americans know. Disney created amusement parks full of themed lands that repurpose our history into something fun and thrilling and not at all problematic. It creates artificial scarcity of Disney’s animated classics, urging you to pick up the films you know and love and grew up with and want to share with your kids before they go back into The Disney Vault.
As for the future, it’s only natural to wonder if Disney will be able to repeat the success of 2016 in 2017 with a grand sweep of global box office charts. Among its offerings are the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, another Pirates film, the sequel to the surprise comic book movie smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Wars: Episode 8: The Title Doesn’t Matter Because You’re Still Going to See It. So yeah, 2017 looks pretty profitable for Disney.
Oh, and the studio is also releasing Cars 3, because every five or so years that’s just something that has to happen. Even Pixar knows how the game is played. It also has The Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4 coming out in the next few years.
Ponder that: Disney is so stacked right now, Pixar is almost an afterthought.