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‘The Call of the Wild’ Rejuvenates Box Office for Dog Movies

Not only did the Jack London adaptation perform better than expected, it also had the best debut for a dog movie in over a decade.
The Call Of The Wild
Twentieth Century Studios
By  · Published on February 24th, 2020

Disney had a massive hit with computer-generated cats last year (this one, not that one), and now they’re having some success with a CG dog. The studio released the latest version of The Call of the Wild, which was acquired through the purchase of 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios) and is mostly known for featuring computer-generated dogs and other creatures in place of the real thing so as not to abuse or even forcefully work any animals. The decision was costly, giving the Jack London adaptation an ill-fitting budget reportedly as high as $150 million. That will be difficult to recoup with a second-place domestic opening of just $24.8 million, but it’s better than anticipated.

Long-range tracking for the movie by Box Office Pro, reported at the end of December, showed an expected range of $15-20 million with a prediction on the low end of the spectrum. Last week, the site had lowered the range to $10-15 million and focused on just $13 million for its opening domestic gross. With fairly decent reviews, a substantial marketing campaign from the Mouse House, and a favorable grade (A-) from first-night audiences polled by Cinemascore, the overperformance is not that surprising. Ultimately, The Call of the Wild gave its CG-animal competition, Sonic the Hedgehog, a run for its ticket sales.

Here’s the weekend’s domestic box office top 12 by estimated attendance:

1. Sonic the Hedgehog: 2.8 million
2. The Call of the Wild: 2.6 million
3. Birds of Prey: 0.7 million
4. Bad Boys for Life: 0.624 million
5. Brahms: The Boy II: 0.621 million
6. Fantasy Island: 0.46 million
7. 1917: 0.45 million
8. Parasite: 0.32 million
9. Jumanji: The Next Level: 0.31 million
10. The Photograph: 0.3 million
11. Impractical Jokers: The Movie: 0.26 million
12. Dolittle: 0.2 million

The Call of the Wild also gave dog movies an uptick after a very disappointing downturn last year. But its opening-weekend audience, at 2.6 million, was smaller than previous Disney releases about canines in the coldest of regions this century. In 2002, the adventure comedy Snow Dogs drew around 3.07 million people on opening weekend. Four years later, the survival drama Eight Below drew a similar crowd of 3.08 million. Disney’s 1991 adaptation of Jack London’s White Fang, however, sold only 1.34 million tickets in its debut. Its 1994 sequel, White Fang II: Myth of the White Wolf, fared even worse with less than a million tickets sold on opening weekend. And the Disney adventure film Iron Will, also out in 1994, sold about 1.27 million.¬†

As it turns out, in the realm of dog movies, the one with the best opening weekend ever, like The Call of the Wild, involves a CGI pooch: the otherwise live-action Scooby-Doo opened in the summer of 2002 to the tune of around 9.3 million tickets sold. Its sequel, 2004’s Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed drew half the original’s audience, however, with an estimated 4.7 million tickets sold. You’d think Disney’s own Underdog, which is also based on a cartoon, would have also gone with a computer-generated pup, especially since Underdog was an anthropomorphic animal, but nope. Anyway, its ticket sales were only around 1.7 million.

Also surprisingly, Disney’s own live-action version of 101 Dalmatians from 1996 utilized 101 real dogs, though the spotless character did require CGI to remove his spots. That and its 2000 sequel, 102 Dalmatians, which employed the same digital effects, opened to respective audiences of 7.6 million and 3.7 million moviegoers. Disney’s talking-dog comedy Beverly Hills Chihuahua mixed in digital effects where needed. The theatrically-released original sold 4.1 million tickets in its opening. The movie’s two sequels went straight to video.

Another top seller, if we count it as a dog movie, is I Am Legend, which features computer-generated effects for dogs fighting but mostly used a real German Shepherd on screen. That movie sold around 11.2 million tickets in its debut back in 2007. More geared toward children and slapstick stunts, the 2001 Warner Bros. family film Cats & Dogs needed CGI for many scenes to mix in with the live animals. Its opening weekend attendance was 3.8 million. Its sequel, out almost a decade later, however, brought in just 1.6 million returning fans.

Speaking of movies in which CGI was employed for safety, one of the recent dog movies that may have partly inspired the decision for The Call of the Wild to go full digital dog is Universal’s 2017 release A Dog’s Purpose. Reports of abuse circulating along with a leaked video of a dog in danger were met with a response from the director that the scene actually used CGI and an investigation cleared the movie of harm. Calls for a boycott didn’t seem to hurt its debut, which saw a crowd of around 2 million.

Dog movies have begun to decrease in popularity overall, it seems, at least excluding those of the action franchise variety (see John Wick). The 2019 sequel to A Dog’s Purpose, titled A Dog’s Journey and similarly based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron, drew fewer than a million people on opening weekend. The same year, A Dog’s Way Home, also based on a Cameron book, sold only 1.2 million tickets, and The Art of Racing in the Rain did fewer than a million as well.

Here is a look at the 25 top dog movies (family-friendly titles only) by wide-release opening weekend estimated ticket sales:

1. Scooby-Doo (2002): 9.3 million
2. 101 Dalmatians (1996): 7.6 million
3. Marley and Me (2008): 5.1 million
4. Scooby-Doo 2 (2004): 4.7 million
5. Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008): 4.1 million
6. Cats & Dogs (2001): 3.8 million
7. 102 Dalmatians (2000): 3.7 million
8. Eight Below (2006): 3.082 million
9. Turner & Hooch (1989): 3.076 million
10. Snow Dogs (2002): 3.066 million
11. The Call of the Wild (2020): 2.6 million 
12. The Shaggy Dog (2006): 2.5 million
13. Hotel for Dogs (2009): 2.3 million
14. Good Boy! (2003): 2.2 million
15. A Dog’s Purpose (2017): 2 million

As you can see, The Call of the Wild had the best opening for a dog movie in more than a decade. And viewers, specifically Disney fans, have more options than ever right now. Last year, the new streaming service Disney+ released its own dog sled movie, Togo, plus a live-action remake of Lady and the Tramp, which unexpectedly employed live dogs for its main characters. We don’t (yet?) know the viewership of these movies since Disney hasn’t revealed the numbers, but we can assume they’ve been watched by more subscribers than went to see The Call of the Wild this past weekend.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.